En español l Say hello to a runny nose, itchy eyes and sneezing fits: It's the start of allergy season for more than 24.2 million Americans. And this year, say experts, symptoms may be worse than ever.
"Global warming is extending the growing and pollinating season, and that extends the allergy season," explains Bryan Martin, vice president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology and director of Ohio State University's allergy/immunology fellowship program. Thanks to a wetter and longer-than-normal winter, "we're going to have a walloping allergy season this year."
Even if you're familiar with the symptoms of allergies, you may have misconceptions about what causes them and how to stop the sniffling. Here are eight common allergy myths, busted.
Myth: You can't inherit allergies
Fact: Environmental factors may be contributing to higher pollen levels, but that's only part of the picture. The other culprit: your genes.
Research published in a 2013 issue of the journal Nature Genetics found 10 genetic markers associated with allergic disease.
Manuel Ferreira, lead researcher and senior research fellow for QIMR-Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Australia, estimates that those markers play a role in at least 25 percent of all diagnosed allergies. In other words, don't blame Mother Nature, blame your own mother (and father).
The upside to the genetic link, Ferreira notes, is that studying these genes could help identify new therapies for allergic disease.
Myth: Local honey provides all-natural allergy relief
Fact: It may taste great in tea or slathered on a scone, but there is no evidence that honey — even if it comes from a local hive — alleviates allergies. In fact, a 2013 review of the literature published in the journal Otolaryngologic Clinics of North America notes that eating honey provided no significant relief for allergy symptoms compared with eating corn syrup.
According to Martin, honey is ineffective because it's the airborne pollens in trees and grasses that cause springtime allergies, not the pollen in flowers that bees use to make honey.
"The logic makes sense — I'm allergic to pollen, bees make honey from pollen, I can eat honey and build up a tolerance to the allergens — but that's not how it works," he says.
Myth: Mattress covers can help cut down on allergic symptoms
Fact: If you're allergic to dust mites, a mattress cover doesn't guarantee you'll sleep any easier.
After analyzing the results of 24 clinical trials, researchers from Tulane University's school of public health and tropical medicine found no significant difference in symptoms such as wheezing, runny nose and asthma attacks between allergy sufferers who used mattress covers and those who skipped them. According to the 2014 study, which was published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, mattress covers don't appear to lower dust mite levels enough to improve allergy symptoms.
Despite the research, Martin believes mattress covers can be one part of an overall strategy to reduce our exposure to dust mites, which unfortunately like to live in our mattress and pillows.
Myth: Allergies are worse in some cities and states
Fact: There is a grain of truth to this: Certain allergens are more prevalent in certain regions; however, a study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology in February debunked a long-standing myth that where you live is a significant contributor to the likelihood you'll suffer from allergies.
"The percentage of people who have allergies doesn't change from one region of the country to another; what differs is what people are allergic to," explains Darryl Zeldin, M.D., coauthor of the study and scientific director at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Zeldin believes that allergy sufferers are predisposed to developing allergies regardless of their environment.
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Myth: Medicine is the only way to decrease allergy symptoms
Fact: Learning to lower your stress can also help. The higher your perceived stress levels, the worse your allergy symptoms, according to a study published in the April issue of the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. "There is a clear link between the neurologic and immunologic symptoms," says David Stukus, M.D., a Columbus, Ohio-based allergist and immunologist and member of the board of directors for the Allergy and Asthma Foundation of America. It appears that, "the more stressed out you are, the harder it can be for your body to respond to allergens, making your symptoms more severe."
Stukus recommends stress reduction techniques such as sleep, exercise and a healthy diet which may minimize the frequency and severity of allergy flares. Meditation or yoga could also help relieve stress.
Myth: You can outgrow allergies
Fact: The response to allergens declines with age, but it doesn't disappear. In fact, a 2013 study found that 13 to 15.4 percent of adults over age 60 reported they had allergic rhinitis, commonly known as hay fever. It is true that the prevalence of indoor and outdoor allergies is lower among adults over age 50, according to NIH research; however Zeldin attributes that to a less severe response to allergens as people get older.
"The stronger your immune system is, the more severe your [allergy] symptoms are," he explains. "As you get older and your immune system weakens, your symptoms might not be as severe but your response [to allergens] doesn't go down to zero."
Myth: Pets cause allergies
Fact: It's not all Fido's or Fluffy's fault. "There is evidence that growing up in a house with pets reduces the risk of developing allergies," says Ohio allergist Stukus.
While it might be too late for you to be around dogs and cats without suffering from itchy, watery eyes and sniffles, exposing your grandkids to animals may prevent them from growing up with allergies, according to research in the December 2013 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers believe that children raised in homes with dogs had a reduced risk of developing allergies, perhaps because early exposure to pets reduced their immune response to allergens.
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Myth: Only doctors can detect allergies
Fact: A number of kits offer at-home results and, according to Ohio State's Martin, "The detection science is solid."
MyAllergyTest was recently cleared for home use by the Food and Drug Administration. The kit uses a drop of blood to detect sensitivities to 10 common allergens, including eggs, dust mites, wheat, cats, mold and ragweed.
DIY allergy test kits don't take the place of a doctor's care, but can help users get a clearer idea of potential allergy triggers. However, Martin cautions that the tests "don't always show positive for the right allergy." For example, a tree pollen may show up as a ragweed allergy and vice versa. The tests also won't be able to detect allergies not included in the test. "If you do have sensitivities or symptoms, you need to see an allergist to determine the next steps for treatment," Martin says.