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Air filter, prescription are hay fever survival kit


We're a family of snifflers and sneezers. Hay fever season is not a pretty sight. But we're preparing by changing filters and stocking up on effective medications.

Hay fever is badly named, because it has nothing to do with hay and you don't run a fever. Instead, you just sneeze your nose red in response to ragweed pollen. For some folks, itchy red eyes are an additional torment.

We are not alone. Over the next month millions will be miserable as pollen drifts invisibly throughout the environment.

The best strategy for surviving hay fever season is avoidance. The less exposure to allergens, the better you will feel. There seems to be an amplifying effect, so people who cope with a cat most of the year may discover that during hay fever season Tabby sets off their sneezes.

Luckily, there have been improvements in allergy treatment. Better air filters can make the home environment cleaner. It used to be that filters would trap only large dust particles. Pollen sailed right through.

Now there are more efficient filtering devices such as HEPA (high efficiency particulate accumulator). They are even becoming available for automobile heating and cooling systems. These cut down dramatically on the amount of pollen circulating in the air.

No matter how efficient your filtering system, however, it is impossible to avoid ragweed pollen when you go outside. Some people wear disposable pollen masks, especially when working in the yard. But there are times when masks may not be practical.

That's when drug treatment takes over.

Over-the-counter products are affordable and easily available, but they can have side effects. Decongestant nasal sprays are effective but they mustn't be used for more than a few days to avoid the risk of rebound congestion and nasal spray addiction.

Over-the-counter antihistamines often make people feel drowsy and spaced out even though they ease congestion and sneezing. Several antihistamines that are much less sedating are now available, but only by prescription. The newest is Claritin (loratadine), in the same class as Seldane (terfenadine) and Hismanal (astemizole).

Nasalcrom (cromolyn) is a prescription nose spray that prevents the release of histamine in the first place, and can be very useful in preventing the onset of allergy symptoms. Unfortunately, it has to be used anywhere from four to six times daily to be effective.

Steroid sprays such as Flonase (fluticasone), Beconase and Vancenase (beclomethasone) can relieve symptoms by calming inflammation. Rebound congestion and dependency are less likely with these prescription sprays.

If allergies are likely to lay you low this season, prepare now. A clean filter and a prescription can make fall more fun.

Q: I have a bottle of nose spray left over from a cold last winter. Can I use this same stuff for my hay fever?

A: This is not a good idea. The bottle may have become contaminated.

Remember, you stick it up your nose where all sorts of germs hang out. We would also caution against relying on an over-the-counter spray for allergies, as it can safely be used for only three days. Most allergies last a lot longer.

Q: How dangerous is it to take aspirin while pregnant? I didn't read the warning on the label before I took a few tablets for a headache last week. Now that I've seen it, I'm scared to death I have damaged my baby.

A: Relax. There is little to worry about. As far as we can tell, aspirin does not cause birth defects and such a small dose should pose no risk. Physicians even prescribe low doses of aspirin in some cases of high-risk pregnancy.

We discourage any further drug use during this time, however, unless your doctor approves.

Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist. Teresa Graedon holds a doctorate in medical anthropology and is a nutrition expert.

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