*Special Note*

Allergy is probably the most complicated topic in the Quick Care Self-Care Advisory. Below is a very general overview of only the simplest, most common allergy problems and treatments. Quick Care strongly advises that you consult a physician if you're not sure whether your symptoms are allergic, or if non-prescription treatment doesn't work well. Many more prescription options exist beyond the products recommended here.

allergiesAllergies are simply your body's immune system making a big deal out of nothing. A harmless substance called an allergen (like pollen or mold) comes into contact with immune cells in your skin (external skin, or membrane skin covering the eyes, inner nose and sinuses, throat, or lungs). When the allergen touches these special immune cells (called mast cells), those cells see the harmless particle as a dangerous foreign invader. Mast cells then release damaging chemicals like histamine to "kill" the invader. Unfortunately, this just causes you harm, and doesn't hurt the pollen or mold in the least.

allergiesWhen histamine is released it causes swelling, itching, and mucus production. Within minutes these cause allergy symptoms like a runny nose, sneezing, cough (or wheeze in asthma) and itching of the nose, eyes, and throat. Some chemicals released by the mast cells attract other immune cells. These other cells also release damaging substances, which continue the allergic symptoms for hours or days.

Allergies Are a Common Problem
Why this over-reaction of the immune system occurs at all is still a mystery. But we do know the problem is very common --- at least 10-15% of people in the U.S. have nasal and sinus allergies. The tendency to be an allergy-prone person is largely inherited, since more than 60% of allergic people have a family history of allergies, too. In the U.S., allergy rates peak when people are in their teens through thirties, then become less and less common as they age. This may be the only good thing about reduced immune function in older people --- as their immune systems weaken, the ability to react strongly to allergens fades away, and so do allergy symptoms.

Is There A Difference Between Allergies & Infections?
This bring us to the next point. Since the immune system also attacks real invaders (like viruses and bacteria) in the same body areas affected by allergies, it's hard to tell the difference between allergy and infection. The chart below helps, but sometimes even doctors can't tell for sure.

Symptoms Respiratory Allergies Respiratory Infection
Head congestion/runny nose yes yes
Sneezing yes Sometimes
Itchy, watery eyes yes no
Cough Usually dry Dry or productive
Predictable seasonal patterns yes Uncommon
Fever no yes
Short duration (3-7 days average) no yes
Long duration (weeks) yes no
Productive cough Uncommon, except with asthma yes

Seasonal vs. Perennial Allergies
There are dozens of well-known allergens --- too many to discuss one at a time. Here we will focus just on the difference between the two main groups: seasonal and perennial (see chart below).

Many people figure out they have allergies through years of experience; others see a doctor and perhaps have allergy testing. The guidelines we have shown here will help, but if yours is not a clear-cut case, it may be hard to diagnose yourself. Don't hesitate to consult a physician to be sure.

Seasonal Allergens Perennial Allergens
Tree pollen (spring) Mold (indoor)
Grass pollen (spring through fall) Animal dander (skin flakes)
Weeds (late summer) Animal Fur
Leaf mold (early spring and late fall) Feathers
Dust mites
Foods such as nuts, shell fish, and occasionally milk and eggs

Avoiding whatever you're allergic to is of course the best way to stop allergies. But if your allergies are seasonal, how can you avoid the air you breathe? And getting rid of perennial allergies like mold, dust, and dust mites in an average home requires extraordinary effort. Click here for some tips on Allergen Avoidance.

Non-prescription treatment for your allergies depends on your symptoms. See the chart below.

Type of Medicine Symptoms Treated
Cough Suppressants For cough caused by nasal drainage and irritation of bronchial passages.
Decongestants For nasal stuffiness, head pressure, and congestion; these will not stop drainage.
Antihistamines For runny nose, sneezing, itchiness of throat and sometimes helpful for eye irritation.
Topical eye decongestants/antihistamines For eye symptoms only: itching, swelling, redness.

You can use single-agent products if you have just one allergic symptom, like a runny nose. Combination products are for fighting multiple allergy symptoms simultaneously. There may be as many as five active ingredients in some combination drug products, which complicates things.

To avoid side-effect complications and over-treatment, we recommend a targeted approach: combine individual medications yourself based upon your symptoms at the time. Avoid "all-in-one" products which increase the risk of side-effects. Multiple drugs in a single pill or syrup may wear off at different times, too. For example, a four-hour decongestant might be combined with a six-hour antihistamine, a four-hour cough suppressant, and a three-hour pain and fever reliever (and most allergy sufferers don't even have fever or pain!) So symptoms and side-effects may go up and down all day long even when you're taking the medicine on the recommended schedule.

The products we've recommended below have been chosen to avoid most of the pitfalls above. Each targets an individual allergic problem, except the decongestant/antihistamine combination (since most people have both congestion and drainage at the same time). Allergy symptoms often go on for weeks, so long-term self-treatment is common. Because of this, we've paid special attention to dosing convenience and minimizing common side-effects like drowsiness.

Remember, allergy symptoms are easily confused with symptoms of infection. In fact, sinus infections are often triggered by allergic congestion and mucus. If your "allergy" symptoms include fever, chills, discolored nasal drainage, or a lot of facial pain, see your doctor quickly to check for infection.

If your allergy symptoms don't respond well to OTC treatments, see a doctor. Many more prescription medications are available and can be more effective than their non-prescription counterparts. And of course, only a physician can perform allergy testing to find out exactly what allergens bother you. Once the allergens are identified, your doctor may recommend immunotherapy. Click here for a brief description of Immunotherapy.

More than allergies on our Self Care Home Page



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