5 Biggest Allergy Myths
If you feel like just about everyone you know has allergies, you're not imagining it: The number of people with hay fever has gone up dramatically in the past 10 years, and it now affects about 60 million people in the U.S.
Why? One theory is that we're leading a "cleaner" existence -- few of us live on farms where we'd regularly be exposed to a variety of germs that help build up our immune systems. So our immune systems may be overreacting to allergens, since they don't need to spend as much time fighting germs that could truly make us sick. Experts also suspect that the chemicals we're ingesting from processed foods may play a role. In any case, this much is clear: Allergies can be debilitating, and make you more prone to developing sinus or ear infections, headaches, sleep issues, low energy and irritability, notes Nathanael Horne, MD, a New York City allergist and clinical assistant professor of medicine at New York Medical College in Valhalla, New York. Step one to relief: getting your allergy facts straight. Read on to find out how you can feel better.
Myth 1: The cleaner, the better
Fact: As we mentioned, a little dirt and germs help build up your immune system, so you don't have to endlessly dust and bleach. But experts do say that you should follow some basic guidelines. For starters, try to vacuum once or twice a week with a model that has a HEPA filter; this will trap pollen particles and other irritants instead of sending them back into the room through the exhaust. (Using a double bag -- available for most vacuums -- also works well.)
To reduce other irritants that tend to hang in the air, equip your furnace with a heavy-duty filter (look for ones with a rating between MERV 8 and MERV 11) and change it at least every 2 months, advises Stanley Fineman, MD, an allergist with Atlanta Allergy & Asthma Clinic in Georgia. If you can, keep your windows closed to cut down on pollen coming in, and leave your shoes at the door to avoid tracking allergens through your house. Wash your bedding once a week in hot water (130°F), and use allergen-proof encasings that zip around your mattress, box spring and pillows, advises Anne Miranowski, MD, a pediatric allergist in Fairfax, Virginia. Showering at the end of the day will also help cut down on the pollen particles that you bring into bed with you.
Myth 2: You don’t need to take medication until your symptoms flare up
Fact: Most allergy meds work best if you start them before symptoms kick in. "You want to have them in your system when you're first exposed," says Richard Honsinger, MD, clinical professor of medicine at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine in Albuquerque. When you come in contact with an allergen like pollen, grasses or weeds, the cells in your respiratory tract release histamine and other chemicals like leukotrienes, which cause the itching, sneezing and other symptoms. If you already have a drug in your body when you're first exposed, you'll prevent histamine (or leukotriene) from triggering an allergic reaction. If you know you get sneezy and wheezy at the same time every year, consider taking meds a week or two before pollen season starts.
If what you're doing isn't helping your symptoms and you can't pinpoint the cause, ask your doctor about seeing an allergist and getting tested. Also, if you repeatedly get sinus or other respiratory infections, finding out your specific triggers can help you avoid them.
Myth 3: Allergy shots are only for kids
Fact: They can work at any age. In fact, research shows that allergy shots reduce symptoms in about 85 percent of people who have hay fever. Typically, the shots (a.k.a. immunotherapy) are a blend of small amounts of various allergens that you react to. The theory is that by exposing yourself to them gradually, you'll build up tolerance and decrease your sensitivity so that when you come across the allergen naturally, you won't react, explains Dr. Miranowski. Often, in the initial phase, you'll get shots once or twice a week with increasing doses of allergens for 6 or more months. Next is the maintenance phase (shots every 2 to 4 weeks for the next few years). Can't stand needles? Ask your allergist about sublingual immunotherapy, in which drops are placed under your tongue daily. "It's probably not as effective as the shots and insurance doesn't always pay for it, but it's convenient," Dr. Horne says.
Myth 4: If you didn’t have allergies as a kid, you won’t as an adult
Fact: This misconception often stands in the way of adults figuring out that their itchy throat and sneezing isn't a cold. While the vast majority of allergies develop before age 30, "it's very common for people to get them later in life," says Dr. Honsinger. "Plus, some young people's allergies go away but then they crop up again later." If you had eczema (atopic dermatitis) as a child or if allergies or asthma run in your family, you're on notice: You could develop an allergy to anything, anytime. If you've never had allergies but are now a sneezy, drippy mess, here are some clues it's probably not a cold: Your nose, eyes and throat are itchy; your nasal discharge is clear and thin; and your symptoms have lasted more than 2 weeks.
Myth 5: An allergy to one thing means you’ll react only to that thing
Fact: Having certain allergies makes you more prone to developing others. For example, people who are sensitive to certain pollens can also react to plant-based foods and beverages with similar proteins. So if you're allergic to birch tree pollen, eating raw apples, peaches, pears, cherries, carrots, hazelnuts or almonds could cause itching in your mouth or throat, particularly during pollen season. Similarly, if you're allergic to ragweed, having cantaloupe, bananas, cucumber, zucchini, sunflower seeds or chamomile tea could trigger these symptoms. Not everyone will have this kind of crossreaction, so there's no need to go out of your way to avoid these foods if you haven't had a problem before, but keep it in mind. Peeling the fruit or vegetable (proteins are often in the skin) or cooking it (which can change the proteins) can also help.