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Allergies: Nothing to Sneeze At

By Robin Hoogshagen, RPH
Manager of Wal-Mart's Home Office Pharmacy

Spring is in the air - along with pollen, mold, and dust mites.
If you're already sneezing and reaching for a tissue, you could be one of more than 50 million Americans who suffer from allergic diseases, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Allergies are the sixth leading cause of chronic disease in the United States, costing the healthcare system $18 billion annually.

What is an allergy? Everyone comes into contact with foreign substances, such as pollen. When a person has an allergic response, his or her body reacts to the foreign substance as if it were harmful. The body then releases potent chemicals, such as histamine, which cause the symptoms we usually associate with allergies - sneezing, runny nose, watery eyes, wheezing, itching and hives.

Some of the most common allergens are pollen, mold, dust mites, and animal dander. In addition, some people suffer from food allergies, or have extreme reactions to insect stings, and even to some medications.

Diagnosing and treating allergies

If you think you might have allergies, contact your doctor. He or she can administer an allergy skin test, or scratch test, where a sample of different allergens are tested on your skin for a reaction.

To treat allergies, doctors today often use a triple approach. This means working with patients to:

  • Avoid allergens as much as possible
  • Submit to a series of allergen shots, or
  • Find the right combination of prescription or over-the-counter medications to ease symptoms.

Avoiding allergens can be as simple as remaining indoors during the early part of the day when pollen levels outside tend to be higher. People with sensitivities to dust mites can eliminate wall-to-wall carpet in their home and instead use washable throw rugs over an easily cleaned floor surface.

Someone allergic to pets might have to forgo pet ownership altogether. Barring that, you can try grooming your pet frequently and using a vacuum cleaner with a high-efficiency filter. Keeping pets out of your bedroom - and especially off your bed - is another tactic that might help ease allergy symptoms.

Like making changes in your lifestyle and home, allergy shots require a certain level of commitment for the allergy sufferer. A doctor injects extracts of the allergen into the skin over a period of weeks, months, and sometimes years to help the immune system create antibodies.

Easing the symptoms

Need more immediate relief? There are several over-the-counter and prescription medications that might help.
Antihistamines are used to treat sneezing, watery and irritated eyes, and runny noses. Diphenhydramine and chlorpheniramine, commonly known as Benadryl and ChlorTrimeton, are two familiar antihistamines. However, common side effects include drowsiness, so use caution when taking these medications.
Newer antihistamines have been developed that work with little or no sedative side effects. These include cetirizine, or Zyrtec; fexofenadine, or Allegra; and loratadine, or Claritin. 
Decongestants can help relieve congestion and swelling in the sinuses. A common decongestant is pseudoephedrine, or Sudafed. Your doctor might recommend a combination antihistamine and decongestant approach to treating your symptoms.

Nasal sprays are sometimes used to treat nasal allergy symptoms, although nasal decongestants should not be used for more than a few days because this can actually increase congestion and swelling, so check with your doctor.
Over-the-counter saline sprays, such as Ocean drops, relieve mild congestion loosening mucus in the nasal passage. Prescription corticosteroid sprays are helpful in reducing inflammation, although you might have to use them for a few weeks before you experience any relief.

Cromolyn sodium spray, sold under the name Nasalcrom and available over the counter, can also help reduce nasal inflammation.

There are many over-the-counter and prescription drugs available today to address any combination of allergy symptoms. You don't have to settle for the sniffles this spring. Talk to your doctor so you can get the most out of the season, your pets - and your life.

Robin Hoogshagen, RPH, is manager of Wal-Mart's Home Office Pharmacy in Bentonville, Ark. She joined Wal-Mart in 1993 as a staff pharmacist and was promoted to her current position in 1996. Her duties include training newly hired pharmacists and testing new pharmacy projects.

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