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The Importance of Recognizing Common Allergies

Written by  Edwin Schwartz

As spring approaches, allergies become a popular topic of conversation.



People who think they may be experiencing them raise many issues. These often include: the effects of common allergens, prevalent allergy myths and the importance of allergy diagnosis. For some insight Our Health turned to The Asthma & Allergy Center in Lynchburg.

The Effects of Common Allergens

Many people may be affected by allergens and not realize it. “House dust mites, so small you can fit 50 of them on the period at the end of this sentence, live by the tens of millions in mattresses and pillows,” explains Dane C. McBride, MD, a pediatric and adult allergy and asthma specialist with The Asthma & Allergy Center.

These mites do not bite, but can cause children to have constant colds and frequent ear infections. The infections can lead to fluid development behind the eardrum that can reduce hearing by 15 percent. This kind of impairment may cause young children to suffer in language and social development.

“Adults may just feel constantly tired or sniffling all the time, and have gotten used to sneezing often,” says Dr. McBride. “When all along, it was due to an allergy caused by millions of bed companions, the house dust mites.”

Can Everyday Allergens Be Life-Threatening?

Most people know some allergens can be dangerous, especially for those allergic to bee stings or specific foods such as peanuts. But everyday allergens such as pollen and dust, despite their daily annoyance, are rarely life-threatening.

“The common inhalant allergies mostly just make you feel bad, like having a cold and feeling exhausted,” says Dr. McBride. “But for those who are severely allergic to plant pollen, they can be debilitated in the height of the spring or fall pollen seasons. May is the worst month in this part of the country.”

It is important to note that if you have allergic asthma, intense exposure to everyday inhalant allergies can cause a severe or life-threatening asthma attack, and should be treated promptly and aggressively.

How Untreated Allergies Can Change Your Body

Allergic reactions in the respiratory membranes cause inflammation and excess mucous production. If left untreated, chronic inflammation can result which can produce an irreversible thickening of these lining membranes.

“This is particularly problematic in the sinuses and in the bronchial tubes of the lungs,” says Dr. McBride. “So that even in a non-smoker, chronic bronchitis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can develop.”

How Allergies are Mistaken for Something Else

Years ago, medical science treated hives and swelling episodes as a problem of nervous anxiety. But if food allergy is the real culprit, failure to recognize the actual cause could result in continued ingestion of the offending allergen. This could cause a more serious, even life-threatening episode.

It is always worthwhile to see an allergy specialist to discover the true cause of this uncomfortable condition. 

Antibiotics and the Importance of Allergy Testing

A less direct way allergies may cause bodily change pertains tothe use of antibiotics to treat allergy-like symptoms. In these cases it is important for patients to be tested for allergies for two reasons: to get proper treatment and to avoid developing immunity to antibiotics.

Proper treatment includes strategies to avoid or control exposure to the allergen, and a specific plan to treat a patient’s symptoms while limiting the amount of medication.

In cases where allergies contribute to ear or sinus infections, antibiotics may be required. But the use of antibiotics could be decreased or avoided if the underlying allergies are properly controlled. Overuse of these medicines can result in the development of bacteria that are no longer responsive to antibiotics.

“Treating the root cause of recurrent infections is clearly preferable to simply treating repeatedly with antibiotics,” says Dr. McBride.

Why Allergies Should Not Be Taken Lightly

The importance of proper allergy treatment is really a quality of life issue.

“Neglected asthma can deteriorate to COPD, not to mention asthma fatalities which continue to occur needlessly,” says Dr. McBride. “Allergies untreated in early childhood greatly increase the likelihood of developing asthma in later childhood or early adulthood.”

Transitioning from OTC Medications to Allergy Treatment

Due to high deductible health plans, there is a growing temptation to relieve allergy symptoms with over-the-counter (OTC) medications.This raises the question of when patients should shift from addressing their symptoms to actual disease management.

Dr. McBride outlines the ways of treating allergies in three parts: allergen avoidance measures, taking medications that blunt their effects and allergy immunotherapy (usually shots, but some tablets or drops under the tongue are available for particular allergens). All three treatments are useful, but only immunotherapy makes the patient less allergic.

There are some very good medications such as non-sedating antihistamines and intranasal steroids. These were prescription drugs but are now available OTC.

“It is reasonable to try these first,” says Dr. McBride. “But when they are not satisfactorily controlling the symptoms, additional help should be sought from an allergy specialist.”

Specialized testing can identify specific allergens to be largely avoided. It can also eliminate continuing medication for long-term symptoms. Allergy specialists can identify a person’s specific sensitivities and advise a customized combination of the three approaches.

Common Myths About Allergies

There are many popular misnomers about allergies. A popular one is that eating honey can reduce pollen allergies. “This has been studied very carefully and proven to be false,” explains Dr. McBride.

This also means swallowing pollen capsules collected from honeybees will not cure pollen allergies.

The explanation is simple. People develop allergies to wind-borne allergens. This is not the pollen bees collect. Bees collect their pollen from flowers, because this type of pollen does not fly through the air.

A second myth is that children will generally outgrow their allergies. Although some will lose their sensitivity over time, most do not. At The Asthma & Allergy Center, 70 percent of the patients are adults who have had allergies most of their lives and did not outgrow them.  

Another myth is if you are allergic to something, you can build up immunity by deliberately exposing yourself to massive amounts of it.  Even though this is the concept behind immunotherapy, or allergy shots, it is dangerous to do this on your own.

“A related example of this is deliberately eating poison oak as a strategy for losing one’s sensitivity to it,” says Dr. McBride. “This has almost universally dreadful results.”

Getting Results in Everyday Lives

Dr. McBride sees a dramatic difference in patients’ quality of life almost every day.

Such rewards of the specialty include: seeing a young person formerly sidelined for severe asthma now able to participate fully in sports; helping an American Electric Power (AEP) lineman keep his job and feel comfortable working outside; and fully controlling a great-grandmother’s terrible itching condition that caused scaling of the skin from head to toe. 

What Makes the Asthma & Allergy Center Unique

In describing how The Asthma & Allergy Center provides exceptional care for their patients, Dr. McBride offers five distinctions.

First, they listen to their patients. Second, they use cutting edge understanding and technology that follow nationally accepted practice guidelines to produce excellent results. Third, the medical and administrative staff maintains a tradition of focusing on the patients’ interests. Fourth, all the doctors are board certified with either a pediatric or internal medicine background before entering the field of allergy.

Lastly, the physicians at The Asthma & Allergy Center have been chosen by their fellow allergists to be leaders in their specialty for 68 years of continuous practice. “When any establishment has been around for 68 years, they are doing a lot of things right,” concludes Dr. McBride.

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