Frequently Asked Questions—Allergies

What types of plants produce the most allergy-causing pollen?
The type of pollen that most commonly causes allergy symptoms comes from plants (trees, grasses, and weeds) that typically do not bear fruit or flowers. These plants produce small, light, dry pollen granules in large quantities that can be carried through the air for miles. Common plant allergens include—

  • Weeds, such as ragweed, sagebrush, redroot pigweed, lamb’s quarters, goosefoot, tumbleweed (Russian thistle), and English plantain.
  • Grasses, such as timothy grass, Kentucky blue grass, Johnson grass, Bermuda grass, redtop grass, orchard grass, sweet vernal grass, perennial rye, salt grass, velvet grass, and fescue.
  • Hardwood deciduous trees, such as oak, ash, elm, birch, maple, alder and hazel as well as hickory, pecan, box and mountain cedar. Juniper, cedar, cypress, and sequoia trees are also likely to cause allergies.

What does a pollen count mean?
A pollen count is the measure of the amount of pollen in the air. Pollen counts are commonly included in local weather reports and are usually reported for mold spores and three types of pollen—grasses, trees, and weeds. The count is reported as grains of pollen per square meter of air collected over 24 hours. This number represents the concentration of all the pollen in the air in a certain area at a specific time. The pollen count is translated into a corresponding level—absent, low, medium, or high.

In general, a “low” pollen count means that only people extremely sensitive to pollen will experience symptoms. A “medium” count means many people who are relatively sensitive to pollen will experience symptoms and a “high” count means most people with any sensitivity to pollen will experience symptoms.
Although the pollen count is an approximate value and fluctuates, it is useful as a general guide when you are trying to determine whether or not you should stay indoors to avoid pollen contact.

Should I consider moving to decrease my allergy symptoms?
No. Moving to a different geographic climate will not help “cure” allergies. Most people who relocate to get away from pollens that cause their allergies tend to find that they eventually develop allergies to the plant pollens in the new area.

How can I tell if my child has allergies or a common cold?
Symptoms of allergies and colds can be similar, but here’s how to tell the difference:

Occurrence of symptoms—
Both allergies and colds cause symptoms of sneezing, congestion, runny nose, watery eyes, fatigue, and headaches. However, colds often cause symptoms one at a time—first sneezing, then a runny nose, and then congestion. Allergies cause symptoms that occur all at once.

Duration of symptoms—
Cold symptoms generally last from 7 to 10 days, whereas allergy symptoms continue as long as a person is exposed to whatever triggered them. Allergy symptoms may subside soon after elimination of allergen exposure.

Mucus discharge—
Colds may cause yellowish nasal discharge, suggesting an infectious cause. Allergies generally cause clear, thin, watery mucus discharge.

Sneezing is a more common symptom of allergies, especially when sneezing occurs two or three times in a row.

Time of year—
Colds are more common during the winter months, whereas allergies are more common in the spring through the fall, when plants are pollinating.

Presence of a fever—
Colds may be accompanied by a fever, but allergies are not usually associated with a fever.

What does it mean when a product is labeled “hypoallergenic”?
“Hypo” means “under” or “less than,” so “hypoallergenic” means a product is less likely to trigger an allergic reaction.

Many products that we use every day, such as cleansers and soaps, deodorants, makeup, and even mouthwash, have ingredients that can irritate the skin or act as antigens (substances that act as an allergy trigger). Exposure of the skin to these ingredients—most often fragrances and chemicals used as preservatives—can lead to a condition called contact dermatitis. Contact dermatitis appears as areas of redness, itching, and swelling on the skin, and sometimes as a rash or blisters.
Many manufacturers of cosmetics and cleaning supplies now market their products as “hypoallergenic,” meaning the products do not contain ingredients that are known to cause irritation or allergic reactions. However, manufacturers are not required to prove the claim that their products are hypoallergenic and there are currently no regulations or standards for manufacturers to follow.

Although choosing products that are hypoallergenic may help reduce the risk of contact dermatitis, no product can guarantee never to irritate the skin or produce an allergic reaction. It’s always a good idea to test any new product before you use it, especially if you have had skin reactions in the past. To test it, simply put a sample of the product on your inner wrist or elbow and wait 24 hours to see if a reaction occurs.

Can allergies be cured?
Allergies cannot be cured but the symptoms they cause can be treated and controlled. This may require making changes in your environment or behavior to avoid or reduce your exposure to certain allergens. Medication also may help relieve allergy symptoms of an allergic reaction. Even with allergy treatment, your body’s immune system may continue to react when exposed to allergens. In some cases, however, children may outgrow their allergies, particularly those to food.
A series of allergy shots, or immunotherapy, is not a cure. Rather, the shots are a way to significantly lessen the symptoms caused by exposure to specific substances.

How does stress affect allergies?
Stress is your body’s response to conflict or situations, both internal and external, that interfere with the normal balance in your life. Virtually all of the body’s systems, including the digestive system, cardiovascular system, nervous system, and immune system, make adjustments in response to stress. When you are feeling anxious or stressed, your body releases numerous hormones and other chemicals, including histamine. Histamine is a powerful chemical that can lead to allergy-like symptoms.
Stress does not cause allergies, but it can make an existing reaction worse by increasing the level of histamine in the bloodstream.

Frequently Asked Questions—Asthma

What is asthma?
Asthma is a chronic, or long-term lung disease that can be life threatening. It causes breathing problems when the airways in the lungs get blocked, causing the lungs to get less air than normal. Symptoms of an “asthma attack” can be difficulty with breathing, a tight feeling in the chest, coughing and wheezing. Asthma problems are often separated by symptom-free periods. While there is no cure for asthma, it can be prevented and controlled with proper care, and people with asthma can live a normal and active life. Asthma is on the rise in the United States and other developed countries, and while the reasons are not clear, these factors may be contributing to the rise:

  • Spending more time indoors, with greater exposure to indoor allergens like dust and mold and some chemicals from building materials
  • Living in cleaner conditions than people did in the past, which makes our immune systems more sensitive (reactive) to triggers
  • Exposure to increased air pollution
  • Lack of exercise

Who gets asthma?
Asthma is a serious and growing health problem, affecting more than 17.3 million Americans of all ages, races, and ethnicities, including five million children.

What causes asthma symptoms?
There is no known specific cause of asthma, but all people with asthma experience chronic airway inflammation. Their airways are highly sensitive to various triggers, and when they come into contact with a trigger, the airways become inflamed, swelling, narrowing and filling with mucus. This causes muscles within the airways to contract, causing even further narrowing of the airways. These factors make breathing difficult, causing episodes of breathlessness, wheezing, coughing, and chest tightness. Having one or several of these symptoms is called an asthma episode, or attack. These symptoms are usually temporary, and can be mild or life threatening.

What are asthma triggers?
Asthma triggers affect people differently but studies have shown that if they are reduced or eliminated, symptoms and the need for medications are reduced and lung function is improved. Triggers are different for different individuals, but common triggers include:

  • Exposure to tobacco smoke
  • Breathing polluted air
  • Inhaling irritants such as perfume and cleaning products
  • Allergens such as molds, dust, animal dander, and pollen
  • Exposure to cold, dry weather
  • Stress
  • Exercise or physical exertion
  • Medications including aspirin and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen
  • An upper respiratory infection such as a cold, flu, or bronchitis
  • Sulfites (additives to some foods and wines)
  • Changes in weather that cause irritants and allergens to be stirred up by wind and rain

How is asthma treated?
Asthma can be treated and controlled without major limitations to your life. Each case of asthma is different but knowing the facts about asthma and how it affects you will help you work with your team here at Smith Allergy & Asthma Specialists of Central New York to develop an asthma plan tailored to your needs. Some keys to keeping this plan on track are:

  • Keep appointments even if you are not having any symptoms
  • Keep a copy of your plan handy to refer to, and if your child has asthma, share a copy of his or her plan with your child’s daycare or school
  • Work with us to learn about your asthma medications, and how and when to use them
  • Take the medicine we prescribe to prevent asthma symptoms, even if you are not experiencing symptoms
  • Learn what “triggers” your asthma symptoms
  • Remove and reduce the triggers in your environment that make your asthma worse
  • Learn when to call for medical care and what to do in an emergency

What medications are used for asthma?
We prescribe several kinds of medications, which are an important part of your asthma treatment and prevention. Not all medications work the same way even if they come in the same kind of container.

There are two types of medications—
Long-term control / preventive medications—help to lessen the frequency and severity of asthma episodes over time. They do not provide immediate relief.
Quick-relief / rescue medications—are used to control the immediate relief of asthma symptoms.
These medications may be in pill or syrup form or may need to be inhaled. Pills or syrup are taken by mouth. Inhaled medication can be administered either by an inhaler / “pump” or through a nebulizer machine.

If you are taking asthma medications, you need to know—

  • The kind of medication you are taking
  • How you are supposed to take your medication
  • How the medication helps your asthma
  • The side effects of the medication

Some of this information was adapted from National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), Action Against Asthma: A Strategic Plan for the Development of Health and Human Services and NHLBI: National Asthma Education Prevention Program.