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This spring could be the worst allergy season ever, with a mild winter expected to lead to record-breaking pollen levels, starting two to three weeks earlier than usual. In fact, some doctors are predicting an “allergy Armageddon” in 2012 , with an epidemic of sneezing and wheezing. The number of Americans who suffer from hay fever has soared dramatically over the past decade, to about 60 million.
What’s behind the rise? Allergy seasons are getting longer and more intense, with a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reporting that the length of the ragweed pollen season in various parts of the U.S. has expanded by up to 27 days between 1995 and 2009. The researchers blame global warming.
ABC News also reports that higher atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, due to air pollution, may also result in pollen that’s more potent and allergenic. Some doctors are seeing twice as many allergy sufferers as usual this year. Since misconceptions about managing symptoms can add to the misery, here’s a look at allergy myths and facts, from the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology and other experts.
Myth #1: Eating local honey helps prevent hay fever.
Fact: This myth stems from the notion that because there are tiny amounts of pollen in honey, eating it would gradually desensitize allergy sufferers to local pollen. Here’s the flaw in that reasoning: Bees only pollinate flowers, which are rarely a source of allergies. The pollen that triggers allergies typically comes from trees, weeds, and grasses. One clinical trial found that honey didn’t work any better against allergies than a placebo.
Myth #2: Pollen allergies have nothing to do with food allergies.
Fact: Actually, pollen and food allergies are closely related: an estimated one-third of people with spring allergies also show sensitivities to some plant-based foods. The villain is the protein in the pollen, so if you’re allergic to birch tree pollen, you may find that eating raw apples, peaches, pears, cherries, carrots, or hazelnuts may ignite itching in your mouth and throat, particularly during allergy season.
And if you’re allergic to ragweed, you may also react to cantaloupe, bananas, cucumber, or zucchini. Since the offending proteins are often found in the skin, peeling the fruit or vegetable may reduce risk for an allergic reaction.
Myth #3: Moving to southwestern states will cure seasonal allergies.
Fact: Moving isn’t a surefire escape from allergies. The most common outdoor allergens--such as grass and ragweed pollen--are found almost everywhere, and even in desert areas that lack those plants there are plenty of other allergens, including sagebrush, cottonwood, ash and olive trees.
Experts also say that a predisposition to allergies tends to be genetic, so any relief from outdoor allergies due to moving is likely to be short-lived, since people who are prone to allergies are likely to develop new ones over time, as they’re exposed to new allergens.
Myth #4: You can get addicted to OTC decongestant nasal sprays.
Fact: OTC decongestant nasal sprays aren’t addictive, but, if they’re overused, they eventually lose their effectiveness at relieving stuffiness. As a result, you may find yourself using them more and more—a problem known as the "rebound effect."
To avoid this frustrating situation, don’t use an OTC spray for more than three consecutive days. If stuffy nose due to hay fever or other allergens is a frequent problem, and OTC treatment isn’t solving it, talk to your family doctor or allergist about a prescription corticosteroid nasal spray.
Myth #5: Morning pollen counts can predict bad days for allergy sufferers.
Fact: Since weather, wind speed, and humidity can influence the movement of pollen, you can’t rely on the morning pollen count to predict what to expect for the rest of the day, points out the Allergy and Asthma Group. And often, the morning count you hear in the news is actually yesterday’s pollen level.
Making so-called “pollen forecasting” even more complicated, spring pollen counts vary more day-to-day than fall counts. Cooler temperatures and rain tend to reduce the amount plants release, while air turbulence during thunderstorms can cause a sudden spike in pollen, with some studies finding a strong link between storms and a rise in asthma-related hospitalizations—a phenomenon known as “thunderstorm asthma.”
Myth #6: Allergy shots cost more than medication.
Fact: If seasonal allergies are making you miserable, allergy shots (immunotherapy) may actually save you money, while also boosting the quality of your life. A recent study found that allergy shots cut total healthcare costs for kids with hay fever by 33 percent, and prescription costs by 16 percent.
Allergy shots work in a similar way to vaccines: you’re exposed to the allergen in tiny, but increasing amounts so you gradually build up a tolerance. If the therapy is effective, then over time your symptoms should diminish or, in some cases, disappear. Immunotherapy typically takes about six months to work. Research shows that this type of treatment helps about 85 percent of patients.