When the first seasonal sniffles strike, do you reach for whichever over-the-counter allergy remedy currently resides in your medicine cabinet? In one survey, nearly half of respondents said they’d skipped the doctor visit and diagnosed themselves with allergies. Most got the diagnosis wrong.
Self-treating your symptoms might save time, but it could prevent you from getting the right kind of care. Playing doctor can even have some unintended, and potentially serious, health consequences. “This form of self-diagnosis and treatment greatly increase[s] the risk of disturbed sleep and further health complications,” said allergist Kevin McGrath, MD, fellow of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
Allergy medicines have been linked to memory problems, fatigue, and an increased risk for motor vehicle accidents. They also can lead to sleep apnea – repeated pauses in breathing throughout the night that increase your risk for life-threatening heart problems. When you take these medicines without really needing them, you unnecessarily expose yourself to all these risks.
Instead of self-treating, “…see a board-certified allergist for proper diagnosis and treatment,” McGrath advised. The best time to visit your allergist is before the season starts. Then you’ll already be armed against symptoms by the time the first pollen grain hits the air.
Your allergist can use a skin prick or blood test to identify whether ragweed pollen, dust mites, or another allergen bugs you most, so you can avoid it. Which brings up another reason why you should visit the clinic early. “You need to be off of antihistamines and other allergy medications for at least five days before being tested,” said Cynthia Rose, FNP, an allergist at University of Missouri Health Care’s ENT and Allergy Center of Missouri. “If you have severe allergies, you’re not going to want to be without medication during the peak of the season.”
Once you’ve identified your triggers, your doctor will help you develop an allergy plan. That plan might involve prepping your immune system preseason with immunotherapy. You’ll get weekly injections of the allergen in ever increasing amounts to prime your body for the first encounter. Immunotherapy will lessen your immune system’s response to the allergen, which could make the difference between a mild and a miserable allergy season.
So that you don’t have to play medicine chest roulette, your doctor will help you choose allergy drugs that are best suited to your symptoms. Your options include antihistamines, decongestants, and nasal corticosteroids, some of which are only available by prescription. You can also discuss possible side effects of these drugs, so you’ll know what to expect.
If you’ve been managing allergy symptoms just fine on your own, you may be able to continue supervising your own care for the time being. But if symptoms like congestion, sneezing, and runny eyes don’t subside with over-the-counter treatment, or if your allergy medicines cause side effects you can’t tolerate, an allergist visit is a must.
Severe allergy symptoms require more urgent medical attention. See your doctor right away if you’re having trouble catching your breath, your chest feels tight, or you’re wheezing.
September 26, 2016
Janet O’Dell, RN