June 6, 2011 -- Allergy season is at its worst in 10 years, meaning lots of itchy eyes, runny noses and wheezing lungs for the 93 million U.S. allergy sufferers out there.
"We are seeing a mini-crisis in New York City, among other U.S. cities, due to heavy winter and early spring precipitation that has caused more early, and sustained tree and grass pollens in many areas," said Dr. Clifford Bassett, clinical assistant professor of medicine at the NYU School of Medicine and medical director of Allergy and Asthma Care of New York. "Secondary, we have seen a steady rise in pollen levels in many areas."
But with all the information available on seasonal allergies, many people are still confused by the myths and facts about allergy suffering and relief.
"Patients frequently blame the cause of their allergy symptoms on the wrong thing," said Dr. Stanley Fineman, clinical assistant professor in the division of allergy at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. "It is important for patients suffering from allergies to find out exactly what is triggering their symptoms."
So, here are nine common allergy myths that are often confused as facts.
1. Myth: Only take medication when showing symptoms of an allergy attack.
Experts say most allergy medications work best if they are already in the person's system or immediately after exposure, even if the person has shown no allergic symptoms.
"For patients with asthma and allergic rhinitis, allergic inflammation in the airways can be present even if the person can't feel it," said Dr. James Li, chair of the allergy division at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. "It's there smoldering. But it's clear that, for patients with asthma, daily treatment can reduce the risk of asthma attacks."
Even though a person might suffer from low levels of symptoms, as the season progresses, Li said, a person can experience complete obstruction of the nasal passage if it goes untreated.
"By that time, it's almost too late to take a medication," he said.
2. Myth: If you use one brand of allergy medication, you build a tolerance and it will stop working.
"This one comes up all the time," Li said. "If someone has significant allergies, they may take a medication and it seems to be helping, but then the person develops more allergy trouble and they conclude that they developed a tolerance to the medication."
Li said allergic reactions wax and wane with time. When symptoms are mild, many people believe their allergy medication is stronger and works better.
"Allergy symptoms progress, not because a person has built tolerance to the medication, but their allergies have gotten worse or exposure to the allergen has increased," Li said.
3. Myth: Allergy shots only work in children.
Experts say allergy shots, or immunotherapy, have nothing to do with age and can offer relief at any time. The shots contain just enough of an allergen to stimulate the immune system, but not enough to cause an allergic reaction.
With each session, doctors increase the amount of allergen in the shot. The idea is for a person to build up a tolerance to the specific allergen over time.
Allergy Myths Debunked
"Although symptomatic medications may help some patients with seasonal allergies, allergen immunotherapy or allergy shots are the only treatment that changes an allergic patient's immune sensitivity to the triggering allergen," Emory's Fineman said. "Allergen immunotherapy can help patients build a tolerance to the allergens and provide long-term relief, even after the injections are discontinued."
4. Myth: Flowers are a leading allergy irritant.
Stop blaming the flowers. They're pretty to look at and, experts say, it's probably not your flowerbed that is causing your runny nose and itchy eyes.
Allergies are primarily caused by wind-pollinated plants; flowers are generally reproduced by insects. Flower pollen is much larger than pollen that comes from trees. Tree pollen can be spread through the air, which can then be breathed in by humans and cause those miserable reactions.
"This notion comes up because flowers have pollen that is highly visible," said Li. "But that pollen does not become airborne and there are not high concentrations of it in the air, like the pollens from trees, grasses and ragweed."
5. Myth: Eat the local honey and you won't get seasonal allergies.
The idea makes sense. Honey is made by bees. Bees are carriers of pollen, so bits of pollen may get into the honey. Eat the local honey and you may build up a tolerance to those allergens, as a whole. But experts say this is wishful thinking.
"Honeybees pollinate larger flowers," said Dr. Michael Daines, an allergist and immunologist at the University of Arizona School of Medicine in Tucson. "These flowers produce large sticky grains of pollen that adhere to the bee. Large sticky grains of pollen don't get in the air we breathe, so they don't cause allergies. So even if local honey had enough pollen in it to desensitize your allergies, it would be the wrong kind of pollen."
"Most importantly, this has been studied in clinical trials that show that there is no effect of unpasteurized locally made honey on allergies," Daines added.
6. Myth: If you didn't have allergies as a child, you're in the clear as an adult.
Sorry folks, but even if you've lived an allergy-free life so far, it is indeed possible for you to develop allergic reactions in adulthood.
"Years ago, people thought that allergy was a childhood phenomenon," Fineman said. "We now know the immunologic mechanism and realize that people with allergies have a genetic predisposition to develop an allergy; this can occur at any time even adults can develop allergy symptoms."
New exposures may trigger allergic reactions to allergens. For example, if a person never had a pet before, a new dog or cat may trigger an unknown allergy, or a new location may trigger allergies that are specific to that region.
Sensitivity to allergens can also change with time, which might provoke more or less of an allergic reaction in the body.
7. Myth: Clean your house and your allergic reactions will disappear.
This would make sense: If someone is allergic to mold and dust, removing those things in the home would help to reduce the exposure and, in turn, allergy symptoms.
But doctors say that might not be true.
"There's a hypothesis gaining traction that younger children exposed to dirty environments might be less likely to develop allergies," Mayo's Li said.
Allergy Myths Debunked
Li said children's immune systems learn to fight the germs, and so the development of allergies is less likely to occur in a germy environment.
While this doesn't give anyone the go-ahead to skip out on the household chores, it should make someone think twice about bleaching their entire home in the hopes of getting rid of allergens.
The American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology suggests keeping windows closed to cut down on pollen coming into the house, leave shoes at the door to avoid allergens and shower at the end of the day to cut down on pollen particles that can be brought into bed.
8. Myth: An allergy to one thing means you'll react only to that.
"This word 'only' is always an issue anyway," said Dr. Leonard Bielory, director of STARx Allergy and Asthma Center in Springfield, N.J. "Something can always be cross-reactive with something else. For example, if you're allergic to ragweed, you can also be allergic to chamomile."
Experts said that having some allergies might make a person more prone to being allergic to others.
About one-third of people with pollen allergies might react to certain foods, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. If a person is allergic to tree pollen, that same person might also have a reaction to certain plant-based foods, such as apples, cherries, almonds and walnuts.
9. Myth: Short-haired pets won't irritate allergies.
Contrary to popular belief, it is not a pet's hair that causes allergic reactions in people, but the animal's saliva and urine. So, really, doctors said the length of the dog or cat's hair does not make a difference in allergic reactions.
When pets lick themselves to stay clean, allergens are released into the air.
"If someone believes mistakenly that allergy is related to the hair of the pet, it might seem logical that a short-haired pet would cause less trouble than long-haired, but any animal, especially dogs and cats, have potential to generate allergies," Li said.
"Also, an individual may have one problem with one kind of pet, and they mistakenly attribute it to long- versus short-haired."
And along with the bodily fluids, the animal's skin can also be an allergen source.
"Patients with animal allergy are usually sensitive to the dander, or shed skin, of the pet," Fineman of Emory University said. "All furred pets have dander, so short-haired pets can also cause problems for patients with animal allergy."