Environmental Allergens – Allergies to Dust, Mold and Pollen

Our environment, at home or outdoors, can be a potent source of allergens causing itchy, puffy and watery eyes, sneezing, a runny nose or nasal congestion, as well as hives or skin rashes in the case of skin contact. Dust, mold and pollen are some of the most common culprits.

An allergy is your body’s way of saying “I don’t like it” to a substance to which you are hypersensitive. Such substances, which are normally harmless, are called allergens. Allergens cause your body’s immune system to produce antibodies, called IgE, to protect you. The IgE antibodies, in turn, cause the release of inflammatory chemicals such as histamines, resulting in allergy symptoms from mild to life-threatening.

The IgE antibodies responsible for allergic reactions are specific to each allergen – for example, the IgE antibody to pollen from a birch tree is different from the IgE antibody to pollen from ragweed or any other allergen such as dust, mold or a specific food.

Allergy testing allows your doctor to find our what is causing you allergic reaction. Your doctor may order a skin test – your skin is pricked and exposed to potential allergens to see if you develop a raised bump or reaction. Or your doctor may order blood test.

Blood testing tells your doctor which IgE antibody or antibodies your body is producing and therefore which allergens are likely to cause a reaction. A small sample of your blood is mixed with different allergens to look for chemical reactions. The reaction is recorded and analyzed by a computer and reported to your doctor. Blood testing can determine how much of a specific IgE your body is producing. This helps the doctors gauge the extent of your allergy and is important if immunotherapy (allergy shots) is used.

Blood testing has some other advantages , too. It is more convenient. Since one blood sample can be used to test for many allergens, it may require fewer visits to your doctor’s office. For children, it means one needle stick for a blood test rather than multiple sticks for skin tests. Also, blood testing does not require introducing suspected allergens to the skin, as skin testing does. This avoids any potential interactions with medications you may be taking.

Allergy medications can help symptom relief or long-term control in the case of asthma. Antihistamines and inhaled corticosteroids can reduce inflammation and control symptoms of allergic rhinitis. Nasal sprays containing cromolyn sodium can help reduce symptoms. Similarly, leukotriene modifiers reduce inflammation and decrease mucus production by blocking the action of certain immune system chemicals.

Immunotherapy (allergy shots) is an option if you have hay fever symptoms or allergic asthma that doesn’t improve with medications without side effects. Immunotherapy desensitizes you to specific allergens by administering gradually stronger doses of allergy extracts.

Pollen is the tiny, egg-shaped male cells of flowering plants including trees, grasses and weeds. These microscopic, powdery granules are necessary for plant fertilization and can remain airborne for hundreds of miles. Pollen can enter your home through cracks around doors and windows. it can be carried into your home on pets or your clothing, and it can be stirred up again when you vacuum or walk through your house.

Pollen can get into your airways (mouth, nose, throat and lungs) through your breathing or the lining of your eyes. Pollen is one of the most common causes for hay fever, a strong immunological response also called allergic rhinitis. The most common symptoms are itchy, puffy and watery eyes, sneezing, and runny nose or nasal congestion. In more severe cases, airborne allergens can cause reduced lung capacity and difficulty breathing. Contact allergens can manifest in hives or skin rashes.

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Risk Factors for pollen allergy include family history, frequent exposure to pollen, especially during pregnancy or an illness, and other allergic conditions such as eczema or asthma and nasal polyps (small, non-cancerous growths in the lining of the nose).

Depending on where you live in the United States, the pollen season can begin as early as January. Generally, the pollen season lasts from February or March through October.

  • Trees, including birch, oak, cottonwood, American elm and maple, pollinate earliest, from February through May.
  • Grasses follow next in the cycle, beginning pollination in May and continuing until mid-July. This category includes Bermuda grass, bluegrass, johnsongrass, ryegrass, timothy and velvet grass.
  • Weeds including ragweed, lamb’s-quarter, mugwort, nettle, pigweed, and goldenrod, usually pollinate in late summer and early fall.

Prevention is the best medicine.

  • Learn about pollen cycles in your area; many newspapers, television new broadcasts and websites report pollen counts. You can download pollen maps for nine different U.S. regions at www.hycorbiomedical.com
  • Close doors and windows during pollen season. Make sure windows are caulked and sealed. Use air-conditioning in your house and car if possible.
  • Remain indoors in the mornings (5 AM to 10 AM) when pollen levels are highest, when humidity is high, and on windy days.
  • Do not dry clothes outdoors.
  • Avoid mowing the grass or other yard work.
  • Wear face masks designed to filter out pollen if you must work outdoors.
  • Wash your hair, face, arms and legs after performing outdoor tasks.
  • Keep gardening or other outdoor clothing outside.
  • Bathe pets frequently; the can bring pollen inside on their fur.
  • Take a vacation during the height of pollen season in a more pollen-free area, such as the beach.
  • Ask for doctor for recommendations about air purifiers and other products that may reduce pollen levels in your home.

Talk to your doctor if you think you may have an allergy. Your doctor can perform a number of simple, painless and quick tests to determine your current lever of sensitivity to different allergens and your risk of developing an allergy in the future. Your doctor can also provide an effective treatment plan for your symptoms and helpful hints to make living with your allergy easier.