“No matter where I go in the United States, I always hear that allergies are the worst in that particular part of the country,” says Dr. Joshua Kennedy, assistant professor of internal medicine and of pediatrics in the Division of Allergy and Immunology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS).
“This statement has a lot of truth to it,” he continues, “because allergies are so personal in nature. If you are sensitized to pollen, pets, dust mites, or molds in your particular part of the country, then allergies are the worst for you there. In Arkansas, this is no different.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than 50 million Americans suffer from allergies each year, making them the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the U.S, at an estimated annual cost of $18 billion. Allergic reactions occur when the immune system over-responds to a substance, or allergen, that doesn’t normally affect other people.
“We have year-round allergens, including pets, cockroaches, dust mites, and molds,” says Kennedy. “We have spring-time allergens, including trees and grasses. We have fall allergens, including weeds. If you are sensitized to these allergens, you will have symptoms during the season of exposure.”
The symptoms resulting from these reactions can range from the unpleasant — like a runny nose, coughing or eczema — to potentially deadly medical emergencies like severe respiratory distress and anaphylactic shock. Allergic asthma can be “particularly problematic, especially in the spring and fall at the peak of allergy season,” says Kennedy.
In addition to common seasonal and environmental allergens, specific types of foods, medications and insects can also trigger reactions that can sometimes be life-threatening without the intervention of a rescue device like an Epipen.
Food allergies can affect people of any age but are most prevalent in young children. Eggs, fish, shellfish, wheat, soy, milk, peanuts and tree nuts are among the most common food allergens and also the most likely to cause anaphylaxis.
Latex allergies result from a reaction to the proteins in latex rubber, a substance used in gloves, condoms and other products. Bees, hornets, wasps, yellow jackets and fire ants can cause insect sting allergies.
Allergies to drugs, like penicillin, can affect any tissue or organ in the body.
While allergies themselves are generally not “curable” in the traditional sense, allergic reactions and their symptoms can often be minimized or prevented. Whenever possible, avoid contact with your personal allergens. For example, thoroughly and regularly clean dust mites and pet dander from the home, avoid trigger foods and stay indoors in an air-conditioned environment as much as possible during hay fever season.
Medications can help control reactions and symptoms. The most important thing to remember is to use the medications that your doctor has prescribed in exactly the way you were instructed, says Kennedy. This includes making sure you know how to use medications that might be in unfamiliar containers, like inhalers or Epipens. Kennedy explains, “If, for example, you don’t know how to use one of the inhalers your doctor has prescribed, go and see your pharmacist, who can help you understand its use.”
For someone with troubling symptoms that are recurring or persistent, Kennedy says identifying allergens through allergy testing can be a helpful next step. A physician specializing in allergy and immunology can provide skin testing to help you understand your reactions. “Allergists can also provide treatments, including allergy shots, that can be effective at removing some of the symptoms,” he says.
The personal nature of allergies means that, over time, individuals may experience changes in their responses to any particular allergen. Sometimes these changes are positive — a child may simply outgrow a food allergy, for example — but it’s also possible for new allergies to develop or for the responses to existing ones to escalate. Learning more about the sources of your allergic distress and taking advantage of medical support could make your own personal allergy season a lot more tolerable.
A.D. Lively is a Little Rock-based writer specializing in health and wellness.