Dusting Off 9 Seasonal Allergy Myths

How much do you really know about seasonal allergies?

ByABC News
March 31, 2009, 4:29 PM

April 1, 2009— -- As the changing of the season brings longer days and buds and blossoms, it also brings some less welcome side effects for the roughly 35 million seasonal allergy sufferers in the United States.

And with those allergic symptoms come some tidbits of advice that don't quite seem to be on the level.

While the origins of allergies remain unclear, most of the conventional wisdom about seasonal allergies can be cleared up with a little digging.

For seasonal allergy sufferers, that may be only a small bit of relief.

"We have seen a dramatic increase in pollen over the last 20 years, and it is the most severe allergy season we see in this area," said Dr. David J. Shulan, an allergist and vice president of Certified Allergy & Asthma Consultants in Albany, N.Y., as well as a fellow of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.

Of course, he notes that because not all allergy sufferers have the same allergies, the worst periods will vary.

Tree season will last through June, while grass will begin to create a problem in mid-May and peak in June. Ragweed problems will begin in the last month of the summer, while mold will peak in midsummer and last until temperatures start to drop.

Of course, for people with allergies in different parts of the country, those peaks of allergy symptoms will vary.

While people on the East Coast may complain of problems with ragweed, Shulan noted that ragweed pollen counts can be 50 times higher in the Midwest.

A change in schedule may even be necessary.

"If you have pollen allergies, avoid going out between 6 [a.m.] and 10 a.m., that's generally a peak time for allergies," said Shulan.

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For those worried about what to expect each season, and for those hoping to check advice before passing it on to a sneezing friend or family member, we present nine bits of conventional wisdom that needed a little more checking out.

"If you're dust mite allergic, you will get better," said Dr. Rohit Katial, director of the Weinberg Clinical Research Unit of National Jewish Medical and Research Center and a contributor to ABCNews OnCall+ of a move to a drier climate like those found in Arizona and Colorado.

Dalan noted that for his mother, a move to Nevada from the Midwest helped her allergies. But, obviously, whether moving will help your allergies depends on which allergies you have in the first place.

While you may escape some allergies in the move, a new plant may trigger allergies you didn't previously know you had.

"You can develop new allergies wherever you go," Dalan said.

So it isn't a cure for everybody.

"There's nothing magical about moving to an arid climate, besides the nature of the exposure changing," Katial said.

And as the next myth will explain, you may not know for a while if the moving even helped.

"It has to do with when the pollens are out, when the allergens are out," Dalan said.

He noted, for example, that ragweed is only around for two months, which may not be enough to trigger the allergies.

Also, he noted, the amount of allergen in the air and your body's reaction may not be enough for you to notice.

"It's personal factors: your personal space and the abundance of the pollens around them in a given year," he said.

For that reason, it may take even longer to discover you have a seasonal allergy.

Dalan gave an example from one study in Minnesota in which identical twins had been split up after their parents' divorce, with one staying in the state and the other sister moving to Honolulu.

The Minnesota sister developed a ragweed allergy, but her sister did not, initially.

But when they both went to the University of Minnesota, the sister who had lived in Hawaii was diagnosed with the allergy her senior year.

"Some of those things are the patient's perception," Dalan said. "She probably developed it in the second or third year."

However, if symptoms aren't bad enough, a person may not be diagnosed with a seasonal allergy when they first develop it.

Katial said that in addition to the saliva, the animal's pelt, or skin, could also be an allergen source.

He added, however, that shedding enhances how much the allergen is carried throughout the house -- a problem more affected by cleaning than by the animal.

"If they're indoors, they still release allergen, hair or not," Katial said.

Fortunately for the stop-and-smell-the-roses mindset, flowers evolved to have bees transport the pollen they need to spread to reproduce.

Trees, meanwhile, use the wind, and the presence of this pollen in the air is what tends to cause sniffling each spring.

While flower allergies aren't unheard of, trees and grass tend to be the primary culprits. So you may have less to worry about when you pick up a bouquet for a seasonal allergy sufferer.

"They may look nice and you can see the pollens, but those typically aren't allergenic," Dalan said.

The problem with that thinking, Leavengood said, is that the pollens creating allergy problems aren't the ones bees use for honey.

"It's the tree, grass and weeds that are the allergy pollens. They broadcast [their pollen]," he said.

Instead of wind, flowers, the source of the pollens in a bee's honey, have heavy, sticky pollens that require bees for transport in order for the plant to reproduce.

"The pollen the honey is made out of is not the pollen that causes the allergies. It's not tree pollen and it's not grass pollen," Leavengood said. "As far as allergy goes, it's just the wrong type of pollen."

There are a couple of reasons people might think they have developed a tolerance for their meds, however.

For one thing, Dalan noted, antihistamine pills are just a "Band-Aid" for allergy symptoms and do not eliminate allergies. A person exposed to more of the allergen may find that symptoms will occur despite the medication.

"It's still working, but it's not working to the amount that they want it to work," he said. "It's a change in the environment."

Part of the problem may also be the expectations of the allergy sufferer for which symptoms the medication will alleviate.

"The antihistamines are good for itching, sneezing [and] runny nose," Shulan said. "For a stuffy head, they really don't do a lot."

So you won't lose the allergy, necessarily. However, Dalan noted, "It's the [severity of the] symptoms that comes and goes."

"You don't really outgrow your allergies. Your symptoms can come and go depending on those factors, but the propensity for the allergies is always going to be there, but they might not have symptoms for years," he said.

For a lot of people, a severe childhood allergy may seem much milder with age.

"Your sensitivities change over time. You can pick up some new ones; you can lose some," Katial said. "If it starts early in life, the sensitivity does tend to go down."

But while age and allergy shots may take some of the sting out of the allergies, they typically remain, to some degree, for life.

"There is a tendency for many people to become less sensitive over time," Shulan said. But that doesn't mean the allergy is completely gone.

"Most people will tend to keep allergies for a long time, into their senior years," he said.

"The breast milk has protective antibodies and the infant's immune system is not quite developed to the degree it can be," he said. "This is not just for allergies, but it's for anything in the baby's environment."

But once the child stops nursing, it's not clear that breast-feeding will keep a child from developing allergies.

"It could be. There's a lot of protective aspects about breast-feeding," Katial said. "There might be some benefits, but you can't say absolutely."

"It may delay onset of allergies," he added, but noted that "that one's a little more gray."

For his part, Shulan said that "I've seen a number of articles suggesting that, at least for children, there is a decrease in allergies for children who have been breast-fed."

A definitive study, however, was lacking, so until then, this seasonal allergy myth will remain a little dusty.

New exposures can also trigger allergic reactions that wouldn't have been experienced before. For example, moving from the West Coast to the East Coast might bring on an allergy to ragweed, which thrives in the Northeast. Or, if you did not have a pet growing up, a new dog or cat could trigger an allergy.

Sensitivity may also change, as common allergens, such as pollen, dust mites and molds, provoke more of a response.

An adult complaining of symptoms will undergo the same tests administered to allergic children.

"If an adult comes in with symptoms that are typical for seasonal allergies, they should be evaluated to see what they're sensitive to, and again, appropriately treated depending on what the allergen is and given advice regarding environmental precautions and the appropriate medications," Katial said.

"Clearly, one can develop both allergies and asthma as an adult and it doesn't have to be just in children," he said.

Spring allergy season is here! Visit the ABCNews.com OnCall+ Allergy Center to get all your questions answered about pollen, allergic rhinitis, sinusitis and more.