There’s an old joke where an Ohio Valley resident goes to the allergy doctor. “I’m miserable!” the patient says. “My eyes are red, my nose is running and my chest is so congested I can’t breathe. What can I do?” The doctor replies, “Move.”
But for so many locals, it’s no joke—Louisville has been named the number-two worst city for allergy sufferers by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. (Dying for more? Knoxville, Tenn. is a lovely shade of pollen yellow this time of year.) The AAFA based their survey on the pollen scores, number of allergy medications used per patient, and the number of allergy specialists per patient in 100 metropolitan areas throughout the United States. (Rounding out the top 10 are Chattanooga, Dayton, Charlotte, Philadelphia, Greensboro, Jackson, St. Louis and Wichita.)
According to Barbara S. Isaacs, M.D., an allergist with a practice at 801 Barret Ave. in the Highlands, the specific problem comes down to the patient and the “target organ,” such as nose or chest. “They’ll say, ‘My nose is running, my eyes are swollen shut, I’m coughing and wheezing.’ The key is, they’re miserable.” Dr. Isaacs says that the number of patients complaining about food allergies is relatively low—although she notes that peanut allergies can be very severe in affected individuals—but the number of patients she sees lately is increasing because of environmental respiratory issues. “Mostly it’s pollens, in terms of seasonal [issues],” she says. “People tend to notice it more.”
Of course, it’s hard not to notice that this time of year is worse than the rest. “The biggest thing is tree pollen, with grass pollen coming close behind,” Dr. Isaacs says. She offers three different options for people suffering from allergy symptoms.
Avoid the thing you’re allergic to. “If you’re allergic to shrimp, you stop eating shrimp and you don’t need to see the allergist. But as for what you breathe, it’s in the air and it’s hard to do that 100 percent of the time,” Dr. Isaacs says. “But you can keep your windows closed and the air conditioning on, so when you come into the house you’re allergy free.” She also advises sensitive persons use filtration devices and turn on the air conditioning in the car.
Use medications to treat the symptoms. Such over-the-counter and prescription products include antihistamines, decongestants and steroid nasal sprays, which give some relief—to a point. “They stop working the minute you stop using them, so you stop having any protection at all,” says Dr. Isaacs.
Consider desensitization therapy. Allergy shots work by building your resistance to things you’re allergic to. “Over time, it works, and works very well,” says Dr. Isaacs. The disadvantage, however, is that it typically takes six months to a year to kick in. In other words, she explains, if you haven’t been on them this season, having them now won’t help with what you’re going through. “It’ll help you next year,” she says, “but when people come in, they want immediate relief.”
Dr. Isaacs says that many people are sensitive to various allergens all year long, but only when they come in with a partner is this sensitivity recognized. A spouse might mention that the patient has been sick all along, but only with a current symptom, such as a cough, has it come to the attention of the actual patient. “It’s more noticeable to them,” she says, “as opposed to their baseline [level of being] miserable.” Dr. Isaacs adds that people with pets, too, are less likely to admit to themselves that they have allergies. “They wouldn’t dare say that their child’s pet is making them sick, as they begin to believe it’s not an issue.”
And what about moving?
“Actually, that was something people used to suggest 30 or 40 years ago,” Dr. Isaacs says. “And you probably would do well in the new place for a year, maybe two, before your body said, ‘I’m an allergic body and I’m going to start reacting to stuff in the air we’ve got here.’” She personally has seen the result of artificial climates contributing to “seasonal” misery. “We’re not as isolated as we’ve been in years past,” she says. “For instance, you may go to Phoenix, where they don’t grow all the things we do generally, but you’re staying in a hotel with a lovely golf course that is not native to the desert. It may contain bluegrass or Bermuda grass or something else that you’re allergic to in this environment—and it’s now part of their environment.” She says that some of the most miserable people she’s seen have been people who’ve traveled to the desert for a bit of recreation, only to get out on the course and react to the now-local pollens. “In fact, with artificial watering, their pollen season might actually be longer.”
So there you have it, folks. Getting out of town is only a Band-Aid for allergies. But there are things you can do—for now and for later.
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