If you are like me, you enjoy the spring and all the pretty flowers with a chance to be outside again. However, that also means sneezing, itching, watery eyes, dark circles under my eyes and coughing. What are allergies and why do we get them?

Our bodies have a built-in system to keep us safe from foreign invaders. That system is called our immunity. When our body is exposed to a foreign protein, one way we can respond is by developing antibodies; antibodies are proteins that fight a specific foreign invader. We use that to our advantage all the time when we take flu shots and pneumonia shots to keep from getting sick. However, when we talk about springtime allergies, that foreign protein is called pollen and it creates huge problems in this part of Oklahoma every spring and fall.

Pollen is the male part of the plant that is released into the air to fertilize the female part of the plant. (Okay ladies, now you have a legitimate medical reason to be allergic to us guys!) The pollen gets released into the air and lands on our eyes and in our noses. Our bodies then treat that pollen as a foreign invader and we develop an immune response to each specific plant pollen. That explains why you can be allergic to one kind of plant and not allergic to another.

When we are exposed to pollen, we get itching, sneezing, watery eyes, a runny nose that is stopped up at the same time, a sore throat, sometimes a cough or even wheezing. The veins in our face get congested and it makes us look like we have a black eye. If you want to sound fancy, tell everyone that you have an “allergic shiner”.

Our immune system basically over-reacts and we call that “allergies”. This allergic reaction to pollen happens in two phases. The acute phase causes the sneezing, itching and watery eyes. The delayed phase, which happens between 8 hours and several days later, causes all the congestion and the chronic symptoms.

Allergies are inherited; if one of your parents had allergies, you are more likely to have allergies. I often see people that have nasal allergies, asthma and sensitive skin all at the same time.

So how do we treat allergies? Step one is to avoid the pollen if you can. For example, if you are allergic to feathers, get rid of that feather pillow and down comforter. One of the most common allergies is to the house dust mite. You might try a plastic cover for the mattress, box springs and pillow. If you are allergic to animal dander, think about keeping the pets outside. (However, most people would rather get rid of their doctor before they would consider getting rid of their pets!)

If avoiding the problem isn’t possible, then we try medications. Antihistamines are designed to block the allergic pathway and help relieve us of some of the symptoms. Antihistamines work well for the acute phase reaction; they don’t help much with the delayed phase though.

Back in the dark ages when I was a Pharmacist, we only had the older antihistamines. They made most people sleepy. Now we have some newer ones that don’t make people as sleepy but the new ones sure cost a lot more.

We frequently also use medicines called steroids for allergies. (There are different kinds of steroids, just like there are different kinds of cars. Steroids that athletes and body builders take are not the same thing as the steroids we use for allergies.) We can use the steroid nose sprays for both the immediate and the late phase problems but the spray takes a few days to start working. Sometimes we use short courses of oral steroid pills to get people to clear more quickly. Shots of steroids probably don’t do anything that we can’t do with just pills.

If that isn’t enough, I can add another kind of medicine to slow the immune system. If you want to sound fancy, tell your friends that you take a leukotriene inhibitor. They’ll be impressed if you can even say the word! As a last resort, some people need to have allergy testing and start some weekly allergy shots.

Take time to enjoy the pretty plants. Maybe your allergies won’t be too bad this spring.