It can be one of springtime’s biggest and most frustrating mysteries: what exactly is behind those itchy, watery eyes and other allergy symptoms? Pollen is one of the most common seasonal allergens, but it’s possible to be allergic to some types of pollen and not others. So pinpointing when your symptoms begin can help identify the real allergy culprit. Yahoo Life spoke with Dr. Tania Elliott, a board certified allergist, who shared some simple steps to identify your own unique allergy triggers — and how you can beat them.
Step #1: Keep track of when your symptoms start
It will take some allergy detective work to determine what’s behind your symptoms — and you’ll definitely want to keep a calendar nearby.
“Start to notice, ‘When am I experiencing these symptoms?’” Elliott says. “What time of day? What time of the week? What time of the year?”
For example, Elliott says if your symptoms start in the beginning of March and last until May, you probably have a tree pollen allergy; if they start after Memorial day and go into the middle of July, you probably have a grass pollen allergy; if they begin in late summer and last until the first frost, you probably have a ragweed or weed pollen allergy; and if they're ramping up in early fall, you could be reacting to the "spores," or seeds, from mold or fungi.
Of course, if you have indoor allergies your symptoms can last all year long. But keeping track of when your symptoms tend to flare up can still provide some valuable clues.
“If you wake up every morning with congestion and runny nose, you may have a dust mite allergy, because dust mites actually live in your bedding and in your mattress,” Elliott explains.
“So you're sleeping on what you're allergic to.”
Step #2: Meet with a board-certified allergist
Next, Elliott says you should schedule a meeting with an allergist to discuss your symptoms and help pinpoint triggers. Taking notes or keeping a diary of when all that sneezing and itching started, where you were and what you may have been exposed to can help your doctor better figure out what allergen may be bothering you.
“Let that doctor guide you [and] ask a couple of additional questions so that they [can] really narrow in on exactly what it is that you're likely allergic to,” Elliott says.
Step #3: Take an allergy test
Finally, you may want to ask your board certified allergist for a skin test, which Elliott says is “the most sensitive test” and can identify what you are most allergic to.
“We put a small amount of what you're allergic to … on your skin to see whether or not you develop swelling, redness or a rash,” Elliott explains.
She says blood tests are also available, but that it’s important to consider your symptoms alongside the blood test results.
“Sometimes you can have a positive test and you know it's not something that bothers you,” Elliot says.
“If you just go and get a test and you come back allergic to a bunch of things, it doesn't really help unless your symptoms correlate with it.”
Once you’ve figured out what you’re allergic to, Elliott says the first line of treatment is avoiding your allergy triggers. If you have seasonal outdoor allergies and need to go outside, wearing a hat and sunglasses can keep irritants from getting in your eyes and hair. Elliott also recommends doing laundry and taking a shower after being outside to eliminate any allergens still clinging to your skin and clothes. And while it may be tempting to pop your car or bedroom window open on a sunny day, Elliott advises allergy sufferers to keep windows closed and the A/C on.
“The second line of treatment,” Elliott says, “if your symptoms are occurring really frequently, is to be on allergy medicine.”
Elliott says she likes nasal steroid sprays because they work locally in the nasal passages to help to reduce inflammation, get rid of that "throat-clearing cough,” and keep your sinus cavities open.
An oral antihistamine tablet is another option.
“Histamine is a chemical that's responsible in your body for itching, redness, swelling, and congestion,” Elliot explains. “So by taking an antihistamine, it actually blocks those histamine receptors on the body and doesn't allow the histamine to be released.”
But Elliot says most allergy medications work best if taken early and consistently — before your symptoms even begin.
“Make it part of your regular routine,” Elliott says.
“What I recommend to my patients is as soon as allergy season is about to come, you should mark your calendar at least one week before the start of symptoms.”
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