Dr. Schaffer's Guide To Indoor & Outdoor Allergies

Allergy season seems like it's year round these days. As pollution and pollen levels continue to increase, millions of people are sniffly and sneezy. We talked with Dr. Frederick Schaffer, board certified allergist and immunologist and Chief Medical Officer for United Allergy Labs, and asked him to decode the allergy season and what you can do to keep pollen at bay. 

1. Why do you think the fall 2011 allergy season will be "one of the worst on record?"

There was a delayed fall frost in 2010, particularly in states such as Minnesota, which led to a longer frost-free fall pollination season.  Fall allergens like ragweed and marsh elder weed generated higher pollen counts for longer periods of time. These higher pollen counts have exacerbated allergy symptoms for sufferers. Unfortunately, experts project that the 2011 fall frost will be further delayed and a longer, more intense fall pollen season will ensue.

2. What can parents do to minimize their child's exposure to allergens in school, outside, and in the home?

There are a couple of ways that you can minimize allergens in the environment:

Allergy Testing - Allergy testing should be considered if you think anyone in your family has allergic symptoms. Tests can show the specific allergens and irritants that affect members of your family so that you can avoid them. “Avoidance therapy” can help decrease symptoms by 50%.

Protect & Wash Bedding - The most common indoor allergens are dust mites, cockroaches, pet dander, and molds. Dust mites are most prevalent in bedding, carpeting, in upholstered furniture, and in stuffed toys. Mattresses and pillows can be covered with impermeable zipped covers that prevent dust mites (contained inside these items) from traveling to the sheets and pillow cases and aggavating asthma,  nasal and ocular symptoms in allergy sufferers. Also, washing sheets, blankets, and pillow cases in hot water will kill the dust mites contained in these bedding articles.

Keep Humidity In Check - Maintaining the humidity in your home below 50% will significantly diminish the dust mite population. You can easily manage in-home humidity by operating your air conditioner during warm, humid weather. You can also use dehumidifiers to maintain low humidity in your bedrooms.

Consider Removing Carpeting - Ultimately, the best way to get rid of dust mites is to remove rugs and carpeting. If that’s not possible, products containing tannic acid can help diminish dust mite populations in carpet. Stuffed toys can be washed often and/or enclosed in plastic to diminish dust mite exposure.

Watch The Bugs - Cockroaches (and dust mites) are major precipitants of allergy and asthma symptoms. Food on counters and open sources of water attract cockroaches, so keep them in the refrigerator. If you think your home has an issue with cockroaches, hire an exterminator that can help you identify how cockroaches are getting into your home. If you see any cockroaches, thoroughly clean the area because the allergen is found in the insect’s waste material.

Check Your Pets - Keeping pets outside will significantly diminish pet dander exposure. Bathing and brushing pets weekly will diminish shedding and help remove pollen-containing grass and leaves from the coat. If you have a cat allergy, keeping away from the litter box will help minimize allergen exposure.

Mind The Mold! -  Mold spores are both indoor and outdoor allergens. For outdoor mold allergies, avoid large piles of leaves or decaying plants (like compost) - they contain high mold spore counts. It’s also important to minimize outdoor activity during times of high mold spore counts. Clearing away leaves or other plant debris from area around he home can also help decrease exposure. Indoor mold allergies can be combatted by reducing humidity in the home, removing indoor plants, keeping doors and windows closed during times of high mild spore counts, and using HEPA air conditioner filters monthly.

3. Allergy shots can be pricey, even for families with insurance. Where can families get access to low-cost allergy treatments?

Actually, two large recent studies, one that studied pediatric patients with allergic rhinitis for 10 years and the other a similar adult study, demonstrated a 31 to 44% total cost savings for those on allergy shots in comparison to those using only antihistamines and nasal steroids. This cost savings included hospitalization, pharmacy charges, and clinic visitations. Thus, the use of allergy shots is in general less costly than the use of antihistamines and nasal steroids.

United Allergy Labs (UAL) is a healthcare services organization that assists primary care physicians in providing comprehensive allergy testing and customized immunotherapy services to their patients. Since the assessment and treatment occurs in the patient’s primary care health clinic, the total cost tends to be lower than in a subspecialist’s office. Utilizing clinics that are associated with UAL provide cost-effective routes of allergy assessment and treatment.

4. Going back to school creates a new host of allergens - chalk dust, other people's pets; the list could go on forever! What can you do to protect your child? 

After allergy testing, the specific allergens that precipitate allergy symptoms can be identified and specifically avoided. Changing clothes (at home) after activities at school will diminish persistent allergen exposure. Using medications and possibly prescribed immunotherapy (allergy shots) will minimize allergy symptoms. Keeping windows and doors closed and utilizing HEPA air conditioner filters (frequently changed at school) will diminish allergen exposure. Inform your child’s school about his or her allergies, and provide the school nurse with a supply of short-acting antihistamines (Benadryl, Atarax, etc.). In addition, have your child’s physician discuss the appropriate use and side effects of these medications with the school nurse.