What Causes Allergies?
Seasonal allergies, or "allergic rhinitis," are triggered by allergens -- substances that trigger reactions in the body. Pollens or molds are among the most common allergens, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI).
Pollen is produced by trees, grasses, and weeds, and is easily carried by the wind. The most common pollen allergens during the spring are trees such as oak, elm, birch, ash, hickory, poplar, sycamore, maple, cypress, walnut, and western red cedar; and grasses such as timothy, Bermuda, orchard, red top, and sweet vernal. In late summer and fall, weeds such as ragweed, sagebrush, pigweed, Russian thistle, and cocklebur become problematic for allergy sufferers.
People experience symptoms because they have a sensitivity to certain allergens. The allergens, usually inhaled, combine with an antibody called immunoglobulin E (IgE). IgE, the "allergic antibody," is normally present in your body at very low levels. But when you develop allergies, it's produced in larger quantities. When the allergen and IgE pair up, chemicals are released that cause inflammation. The resulting symptoms include itchy, watery eyes, sneezing, nasal congestion, a runny nose, drowsiness, and headaches.
What's the Treatment?
Allergies can be treated with allergy shots or medication, or you can try to avoid the allergens. It's best to avoid taking medications during pregnancy. But if your allergy symptoms are severe, your doctor will weigh the severity of your symptoms against possible risks to your baby. Educate yourself about allergy medications with this information from the American College of Asthma, Allergy and Immunology (ACAAI):
- Tried-and-true medications: There are several drugs prescribed for use during pregnancy that have been recommended to pregnant women for years with no known danger to the developing baby. The most popular of these are chlorpheniramine (Chlor-Trimeton) and diphenhydramine (Benadryl). The drawbacks of using these medications are drowsiness and motor impairment in the mother, but there has been no reported harm to the fetus.
- Newer medications: Other nondrowsy drugs such as fexofenadine (Allegra), loratadine (Claritin), and cetirizine (Zyrtec), as well as the nasal spray azelastine (Astelin), have very little recorded data on human side effects. However, doctors tend to prescribe loratadine and cetirizine because of encouraging study data on these drugs.
- Decongestant pills: The drug pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) is a decongestant pill that has been on the market for years. However, there are studies indicating increases in abdominal wall defects of newborns whose mothers took this drug. In general, decongestant use among pregnant women in their first trimester is only recommended if the symptoms are severe and other types of medications are not offering relief.
- Nasal sprays: A major problem with decongestant nasal sprays is that they actually worsen the symptoms of nasal congestion with regular use. The safest products appear to be oxymetazoline (found in Afrin and Neo-Synephrine) because there is very minimal absorption into the blood stream. Anti-inflammatory nasal sprays should be considered for women whose symptoms worsen and persist for more than a few days. Cromolyn (Nasalcrom) and beclomethasone (Beconase) are most commonly prescribed. According to the ACAAI, newer corticosteroid sprays don't have much data relating to use during pregnancy, but absorption into the blood stream is minimal so it's doubtful that using them is risky.
- Allergy shots: According to the AAAAI, allergies can also be treated with a regimen of allergy shots. The shots are prescribed and carefully monitored by an allergy specialist. There is no known adverse effect on pregnancy from having allergy shots. Your allergist will continue to carefully monitor your dosage and your reaction to the shots. However, as a general rule, allergy shot therapy should not be initiated for the first time if you're pregnant.
If you're pregnant or are planning a pregnancy, ask your doctor about the safety of any type of allergy medication you use or plan to use.
Limiting Your Exposure
If your allergies are worsening now that you're pregnant, it's important to avoid the pollen and mold that make your symptoms unbearable. The following tips from the AAAAI will help you decrease your exposure to the culprits that cause seasonal allergies:
- Keep your windows closed at night to prevent pollen or mold from drifting into your house.
- Use an air conditioner and dehumidifier to keep the air you breathe clean, cool, and dry.
- Keep your car windows closed when you drive.
- Stay indoors as much as possible on days when the pollen count or humidity is reported to be high, and on windy days when mold and pollen are blowing around.
- Limit visits to areas with heavy tree and grass growth, such as wooded campgrounds. Instead, vacation in an area with lower pollen levels, such as near the beach.
- Wear a paper dust mask (available at your local hardware store) when mowing or raking is taking place around you to decrease exposure to stirred-up pollen and mold.
- Don't hang sheets and clothing outside to dry because pollen and mold collect on them.
- Shower after you've spent time outdoors in order to remove pollen and mold spores that may have settled on your skin and hair.
Allergies can lead to other chronic conditions such as asthma. They shouldn't be ignored. If your seasonal allergy symptoms increase in severity, see an allergist. An allergist can help by conducting tests to determine what's triggering your symptoms. He'll help you manage your allergies with environmental controls and/or medications. To find an allergist in your area or to learn more about spring allergies, visit the AAAAI Web site at www.aaaai.org or the ACAAI Web site at allergy.mcg.edu.
Source: American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.