Tips for Managing Seasonal Allergies
Spring has sprung and warmer weather is on the way, bringing with it signs of the season such as tree blossoms and green grass. While most welcome the opportunity to tuck away winter clothes and spend more time outdoors, the turn of the season can pose challenges for the more than 35 million Americans who suffer from allergies. With predictions of an intensified allergy season this year, experts at Northwestern Memorial Physicians Group offer suggestions for helping allergy sufferers find relief. “Avoidance is the key. Common allergens include pollen, dust, mold, or animal dander,” say Evan Lu, MD of NMPG. “Minimizing exposure to allergens can help reduce the severity of allergy symptoms.”
What causes seasonal allergies?
The long-awaited warmer weather brings about a cycle of plant pollen and molds that can quickly permeate the air and spread for miles. While the type and quantity of pollen varies by region, common culprits are trees, grass and ragweed, which pollinate from March through September and can send many people’s immune systems into overdrive with the release of histamine that can trigger eye, nose and sinus inflammation. The most common symptoms include itchy or watery eyes, runny nose, postnasal drip, congestion and sneezing. While many may consider such symptoms to be merely bothersome, they can progress to a state of misery for others.
While you certainly can’t control the air, there are steps you can take to lessen the likelihood that you’ll suffer from allergy symptoms. Dr. Lu recommends the following approaches for identifying triggers and avoiding seasonal allergy attacks.
- Visit your doctor – The first step to prevention is determining what type of pollen you’re allergic to. During the visit, he or she may perform an allergy skin test, in which allergens, such as grass pollen, are injected into the outermost layer of the skin. Allergy is identified if redness or swelling develops within 15 to 20 minutes at the site of an allergen injection. Similarly, a blood test can measure levels of antibodies that your body makes in response to certain allergens.
- Prepare for the outdoors – Once you know what triggers your allergies, stay on top of the pollen and mold counts and air quality provided in weather forecasts to determine and plan your time outdoors. A low pollen reading is 0 to 30, moderate is 31 to 60, high is 61 to 120 and extremely high is anything over 121. Pollen is typically highest during the late morning and early afternoon periods, and can rise with high humidity levels. It’s always a good idea to wear sunglasses and hats when outside to help block pollen.
- Safeguard the indoors – Keep windows and doors shut when pollen counts peak, and be sure to change air filters in your home often. Regular dusting and vacuuming can also help, along with air purifiers, which remove airborne allergens. Since pollens are known to stick to fabric, Dr. Lu also recommends removing clothing that’s been worn outside when you get home and taking a shower to rinse allergens from your body. Also, be sure to wash clothes and bedding often.
When allergy symptoms do hit, a variety of over-the-counter products such as antihistamines, decongestants and nasal sprays can provide relief. “Although many people find relief with over the counter products such as antihistamines and decongestants, it is a good idea to talk with your doctor to decide which product is right for you," recommends Dr. Lu. While these medications are designed to help alleviate symptoms, some products can cause side effects and should thus not be used long-term.
Other products that can help with allergy symptoms are antihistamine eye drops for itchy, watery eyes and throat lozenges for soothing a sore throat due to postnasal drip. If you find that such over-the-counter remedies still don’t bring relief, speak with your doctor, who may prescribe anti-inflammatory medication such as nasal steroids, which are safe to use on a long-term basis. For those patients with severe allergies, immunotherapy treatments such as allergy shots, which work to reduce sensitivity to allergens, may be an option for providing long-term relief. "With the proper treatment, allergy sufferers can enjoy the great outdoors once again," says Dr. Lu.
Help for Chronic Pain
Chicago resident Anna Chapman had suffered from a mysterious pain for ten years. It started in her jaw and spread to her head, neck, and shoulders. Over time, the pain shot down her legs. She visited dozens of doctors and specialists, endured a number of tests and was misdiagnosed a handful of times. Just as Chapman thought she exhausted all other means of treatment, something clicked and she remembered hearing about TMS, Tension Myositis Syndrome, also known as mind-body syndrome. It was an epiphany that ultimately put Chapman back in control of her health and changed her life.
“The pain was awful. It forced me to give up on so many of the things I loved like gardening and playing tennis. Plus, on top of all the pain, the act of going to multiple doctors just to hear they don’t know what’s wrong with me was exhausting. It really took a toll on my life,” said Chapman.
Chapman found John Stracks, MD , a family and integrative medicine physician with the Center for Integrative Medicine and Wellness, who specializes in TMS. Stracks diagnosed Chapman with TMS affecting the muscles, ligaments, and nerves of the back and neck. The pain experienced with TMS is triggered by tension and, in most cases, can be eliminated by a mental process that involves focusing on the emotional, rather than the physical. Research increasingly supports the link between emotional and physical conditions, and scientists are now revealing how emotional signals can translate into physical pain. Back pain, neck pain, arthritis, migraine headaches, skin rashes, fibromyalgia, and many other conditions are caused or worsened by emotions such as tension, anger, fear, and grief.
Stracks has studied this mind-body connection for more than a decade and has trained with renowned physician Dr. John Sarno, who first conceptualized the TMS diagnosis. Stracks is currently the only doctor in Chicago who practices this style of mind-body medicine.
“The underlying cause of the pain is the mind’s defense mechanism against unconscious stress and emotions such as anger, anxiety, fear, or guilt. The mind then gets distracted by the physical pain, but when a patient recognizes that the symptoms are only a distraction, the symptoms then serve no purpose, and they go away,” said Stracks, who teaches a TMS healing class at the Center for Integrative Medicine and Wellness.
During the first evaluation, Stracks explores a patients’ medical history, paying particular attention to episodes of severe pain and stressful events or emotions that may have accompanied those episodes. If patients like Chapman don’t present any serious physical issues, the four-week course is often recommended.
“The treatment is educational and psychological, and effective in approximately 80 percent of patients that take the course. If someone is experiencing lingering pain with no explanation or obvious injury, the cause may be emotional,” added Stracks.
The course begins with an introductory lecture that provides up-to-date information on the research supporting mind-body medicine. Subsequent lessons are spent completing writing and reading exercises which help patients learn how to use their knowledge to lessen and eventually eliminate the chronic pain symptoms.
“The treatment changed my way of life. I now have an explanation for the pain and understand its being caused by my emotions. This course provided me with the proper tools to make the hurting go away,” said Chapman
While the TMS diagnosis and treatment protocol have yet to be widely accepted by the medical community, Stracks states that the numerous clinical success stories and the growing body of research in this area are compelling. There are currently only about four dozen doctors who practice this method in the United States. Stracks is part of this small group of practitioners from around the country who have been successful in teaching patients how to use the knowledge of the mind-body connection to make chronic pain symptoms diminish or even disappear.
For those interested in an evaluation with Stracks, please call
312-926-DOCS (3627). Interested patients should ask to schedule a
60-minute mind-body pain evaluation.