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Guide Health: Be prepared for allergies

Depending on your destination, winter travel can mean allergy season lasts all year

Whether you suffer from hay fever or have “bug” bites, you will certainly know the symptoms of an allergy. Allergies are caused when a foreign substance — think plant pollen or insect venom — enters your body and your body’s immune system reacts to that substance or allergen.

With today’s travel, such allergies aren’t confined to the usual months.

Fewer than one per cent of Canadians have an allergy to insect stings, but about one in six suffer from hay fever. Their symptoms include inflammation of nasal passages, red eyes, itching, and in severe cases, trouble breathing.

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Regardless of the type of allergy, the mechanism is the same. A foreign substance enters your body and sets your immune system in motion to manufacture antibodies to the allergen.

You may need several exposures for your immune system to manufacture a full set of antibodies, and that’s why you may not experience allergy symptoms the first or even subsequent times you’re in contact with the pollen or insect venom.

The antibodies bind with the allergen to neutralize it, but the complex also binds to cells known as mast cells which then rupture, releasing inflammatory substances like histamine. It is these substances that cause allergy symptoms.

It makes sense that antihistamines are used to treat allergy symptoms because they counteract histamine. However, you get the most benefit from having the antihistamine circulating in your body before you are exposed to the allergen.

There are two general groups of antihistamines, specifically first and second generation. First generation include diphenhydramine and are more sedating than the second generation. They are faster acting and are ideal for severe allergies.

The second generation antihistamines, for example desloratadine, and cetirizine, are much less sedating and are ideal for continued use to prevent allergies.

Antihistamine nasal sprays are available, but are less effective than tablets.

Corticosteroid nasal sprays like mometasone and fluticasone are considered effective for hay fever symptoms that involve drippy sneezing noses. They are effective within six to eight hours of the first dose, but need several weeks for maximum effect. Regular use during hay fever season makes sense, but you may seem to become tolerant to the effects. Changing to another type may solve this issue.

And, don’t forget to blow your nose before you use the nasal spray.

Although decongestants act, as their name suggests, to reduce congestion, they are not considered first line therapy. They can increase blood pressure, disturb sleep, and even interfere with urinary functioning.

Decongestant nasal sprays also have the risk of rebound nasal congestion, where your congestion worsens when you stop using them.

For bug bites, remember that anything you put on the bites will certainly need to be removed later. You probably want to avoid greasy, thick ointments. Stick to unscented moisturizers and cool compresses.

There are antihistamine creams that are promoted for insect bites, but these are best avoided because they can actually add to the irritation.

If you have a wasp or bee allergy, don’t forget to carry your EpiPen, no matter where you go. It contains epinephrine which is able to open swollen, inflamed airways enabling you to breath again.

Be well prepared, and don’t forget the tissues!

About the author

Contributor

Marie Berry is a lawyer/pharmacist interested in health and education.

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