First step on allergies: Clean up the indoor atmosphere

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Give allergies a break by cleaning indoor air.

Allergic rhinitis, also known as hay fever, is the fifth most common disease in the U.S. "'Hayfever' is a term I think most people use for seasonal pollen allergies (tree, grass, weed pollen)," said Dr. Sandra Y. Lin, associate professor, Department of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery, at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "People can also be allergic to pet dander, dust mite, cockroach and mold."

"When you inhale something you're allergic to, the inside lining of your nose becomes inflamed, resulting in congestion, runny nose, sneezing or itching," she explained. Because allergies are so common throughout the year and especially during high pollen counts, doctors in a wide range of fields treat it and use a host of options, from over-the-counter remedies to in-office treatments.

Although dealing with a constantly stuffy nose and watery eyes is really just an uncomfortable inconvenience for many, allergies can become more serious and trigger an asthma attack if not managed properly.

Beyond medication there are very helpful nonmedical steps that allergy sufferers can take to start managing symptoms.

Dr. James Sublett, an allergist-immunologist in Louisville, Ky., and president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (www.acaai.org), said identifying and avoiding triggers as much as possible is key. While most people think about external environmental factors such as seasonal plant pollen as the biggest culprit of seasonal allergies, he said, indoor air quality needs to be considered in overall allergy management.

Sublett recommends several ways allergy sufferers can improve their indoor air quality:

•No smoking inside the home at any time.

•Leave the furnace/air-conditioner fan on to create a "whole house" air filtration to remove particles that may trigger allergies and asthma and scheduling heating and air-conditioning unit inspections and servicing every six months. Change the filter often.

•In the bedroom, where we spend most of our uninterrupted time, keep pets out at all times and remove wall-to-wall carpeting, if possible. In fact, Sublett recommends removing wall-to-wall carpeting throughout the house. "Use a HEPA air cleaner in the bedroom with an adequate CADR (Clean Air Delivery Rate) for the size of the room," he added. "Encase mattresses and pillows with 'mite-proof' covers; wash all bed linens regularly, using hot water."

•Keep indoor humidity below 50 percent. "Do not use vaporizers or humidifiers," he advised. "You may need a dehumidifier. Use vent fans in the bathrooms and when cooking to remove moisture."

•Use a vacuum with a HEPA filter, and remember that it takes more than two hours for dust to settle back down after vacuuming.

As for medical intervention, new guidelines published earlier this year by the American Academy of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery Foundation (www.entnet.org) suggest that acupuncture can be effective for some patients who suffer from allergic rhinitis (also known as hay fever), according to Lin.

Over-the-counter medications can provide relief for some patients, while others will require prescription medications.

The new guidelines recommend topical steroids, or nasal steroid sprays, for patients whose symptoms hinder their quality of life, and second-generation and less-sedating antihistamines for those patients whose main complaints are sneezing and itching.

Sublett recommends that patients suffering from seasonal allergies schedule an appointment with a trained, board-certified physician who specializes in allergy/asthma to identify their triggers and implement steps to help them minimize symptoms.

"Neither allergies or asthma should restrict a person from a normal active life," Sublett said. "Find relief; see an allergist."

Resources: The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology also provides that pollen and mold data online and via a mobile pollen app (pollen.aaaai.org).

Karydes is a freelance reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

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