Clearing up the confusion
Serenity Aberdour, ND
There can be confusion about seasonal allergies this time of year. Here are some of the most common myths and misunderstandings.
Allergy season is here. Along with the sneezing, sniffling, and itching, there can also be some confusion about allergies floating around this time of year. Here are some of the most common myths and misunderstandings.
MYTH: Allergies are permanent
Although an allergy can be lifelong, many children outgrow allergies over time. This is more common in the case of food allergies than with seasonal allergies, as a child’s system becomes less sensitive over time.
Despite the potential for children to outgrow their allergies, one should not assume that they will, and if there is a history of serious allergic reaction (anaphylaxis), care should be taken to continue to avoid triggers as a precaution, unless disappearance of the allergy is confirmed by your doctor.
MYTH: Pet hair causes allergies
The hair is not the real problem. Instead, proteins in an animal’s skin and/or saliva are to blame. Although these adhere to hair and therefore can promote allergic reactions when an animal sheds, less hair is not the solution. Therefore, attempts to reduce allergies by shaving a dog or choosing dogs or cats that shed less will not necessarily reduce allergy symptoms.
MYTH: Unpleasant symptoms after eating certain foods must mean allergy
Not necessarily. Many food reactions are not true allergies, but rather intolerances. Food intolerances are actually far more common than food allergies.
Allergies are specific reactions to food proteins; the body misunderstands a protein as a threat and produces antibodies in response. These antibodies then promote the release of histamine, a chemical responsible for common allergy symptoms such as flushing, itching, and swelling.
Food intolerances do not involve this type of immune reaction. Instead, they are often due to a problem with the body’s ability to digest/metabolize certain foods. Lactose intolerance is a good example. This is not an allergy but rather the result of a lack of the enzyme lactase in the gut, which leads to an inability to digest the milk sugar lactose. Symptoms include unpleasant intestinal symptoms such as gas, bloating, and diarrhea. In general, symptoms of food intolerance tend to be more limited to gastrointestinal symptoms.
MYTH: Desert environments are allergy-free zones
People with severe seasonal allergies may dream of relocating to a warm, arid desert environment. After all, there is not much growing in the desert, right? Surely the desert would offer a safe refuge for allergy sufferers? Nope. Although it is true that deserts may not have the trees, grasses, or ragweed that plague many allergy sufferers, they are not allergy-free zones.
A 2005 study found that seasonal allergies experienced in North America were aggravated in North Americans travelling to the desert environment of the Middle East, and therefore treatment for allergy symptoms may still be required. In addition, desert dust can also contribute to a range of other health concerns: both respiratory problems such as allergies/asthma and other non-allergy concerns.
MYTH: Blame it on the flowers
Do your allergies seem to flare once the flowers are in bloom? Don’t blame the flowers! It is unlikely that flower pollen is to blame for your seasonal allergies. Flower pollen (especially from the beautiful, fragrant flowers that many of us like to have in our gardens) is considered “heavy pollen”; it is large and sticky and less likely to become airborne than the smaller, lighter, dry pollens of grasses, weeds, and trees.
Colourful, showy flowers generally have heavy pollen and rely on insects to carry the pollen from place to place. Dull-looking grasses, trees, and weeds do not attract pollinating insects in the same way; they rely instead on the wind for pollen dispersion. People with true flower pollen allergies are generally those who frequently come into contact with the flowers themselves—for example, florists or cultivators of decorative flowers. Most other people with seasonal allergies are reacting to airborne pollens.
MYTH: Local honey can provide allergy relief
Bees usually focus their attentions on brightly coloured, fragrant flowers—the ones producing heavy pollen. For this reason, using honey as a sort of natural “allergy shot” is controversial.
Although bees certainly have been shown to bring home other types of pollen (light pollens such as grass and weed, which are associated with seasonal allergies), this is not the main type of pollen they carry back to the hive. So just how much of this ends up in your honey is very difficult to determine and likely means inconsistent levels and therefore inconsistent (if any) benefits of honey as an allergy treatment.
On the other hand, a 2013 study showed some potential benefit of large doses of honey when added to standard seasonal allergy treatment. But the doses required may make this impractical. Adding birch pollen to honey has produced interesting preliminary results for relief of birch pollen allergy symptoms, but this is not necessarily true of other types of bee pollen.
MYTH: Allergies begin in childhood
If you did not have allergies as a child, it is no guarantee you cannot develop them later in life. Allergies can develop at any point in life, and developing environmental allergies as an adult is not uncommon. Exposure to new plants, air pollution, and other environmental factors can be associated with developing allergies as an adult. Allergies to shellfish occur more often in adults than in children.
Natural approaches to allergy relief
There are many natural therapies proposed to help reduce allergy symptoms; here are some of the best studied so far.
Saline nasal rinses
Neti pots have gained popularity in recent years, and for good reason. Using them to rinse the nasal passages has been shown to significantly improve seasonal allergy symptoms and reduce the need for allergy medications when used daily over a period of up to seven weeks.
Perhaps the most promising results for a herbal treatment for seasonal allergies have been produced in studies using butterbur. A standardized extract of this plant has been shown to produce improvement in seasonal allergy symptoms in 90 percent of patients studied.
Short for sublingual immunotherapy, SLIT has gained popularity and use in European and Asian countries, with interest increasing in North America recently. An alternative to allergy shots, SLIT uses small doses of allergy extract administered as drops under the tongue.
The concept is similar to allergy shots, in which repeatedly exposing the immune system to very small doses of an allergen can eventually allow a person to build a tolerance to that allergen. The convenience, efficacy, and low occurrence of side effects make SLIT an interesting option for those looking to treat their seasonal allergies without injections.
Keep an eye on the pollen count
Many cities keep track of pollen counts during allergy seasons. Counts provide information on the general amount (low, medium, or high) of pollen in the air. This can be helpful for pollen allergy sufferers, as it can help predict when allergies may be more severe due to increased pollen exposure. Once pollen counts begin to rise, taking your allergy treatments may help reduce the onset of allergy symptoms, making them less severe.