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Smart Talk on Health

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According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, allergies affect 40 million Americans. Dr. Pat Gary, medical director at Doctors Express (3348 W. Esplanade Ave., Suite A, Metairie, 888-9988; www.doctorsexpress.com), discusses allergies, their symptoms and when sufferers should seek treatment.

What causes airborne allergen symptoms?

When the body is exposed to an allergen, the immune system responds a number of ways. Everybody's response is different. Most people get a runny nose due to irritation of the mucosa (the lining of the nose). The nose responds (by making) mucus to get rid of that irritation. Sometimes the lining of the nose, the sinuses and throat swell as a response to the irritant. Frequently when that swelling occurs, normal drainage of the (fluid in) nasal passages, sinuses and sometimes the ears can't take place. When that fluid sits there long enough it can get infected.

Can allergy symptoms lead to a sinus infection? How can this be prevented?

Yes, they can. To prevent that, do what you can for decongestion. A lot of over-the-counter medicines work reasonably well for decongestion. If you take a specific brand for awhile, it tends to lose its effectiveness, and you have to switch brands. Another option is to irrigate the sinuses. There are many over-the-counter setups such as plastic squeeze bottles or the neti pot, which literally rinses out your sinuses. I've seen people use the neti pot to get rid of the irritation, extra mucus and to some extent the swelling. This works well for most people.

How can a patient tell the difference between allergies and a cold?

Sometimes you can't, because the symptoms are frequently the same. A cold, which is caused by a virus, starts off more as a sore throat with a sense of swelling higher up in your nose, while allergies are usually sneezing, runny nose and watery eyes. Decongestants can relieve symptoms of both. Children are more susceptible to allergies, because they have smaller passages which are likelier to become obstructed and swollen. However, it is possible to develop allergies during any stage of life.

What symptoms should prompt someone to seek a doctor?

Fever, a change in color or texture of nasal mucus, or a cough that (produces) green mucus. In the morning, nasal mucus is usually yellow because it has been collecting overnight. If the color clears up during the day, it's most likely allergies. If it stays yellow or gets darker or thicker, then you worry about an infection.

What are the most common allergens in the greater New Orleans area?

Ragweed is one of the worst. A lot of the pines, oaks and flowering trees have significant pollen. One way to get an idea of the amount of pollen in the air is by looking at a car in the morning — if it's covered with yellow dust, that's pollen.

What are the best ways to treat allergies?

Staying hydrated, using over-the-counter medicines and rinsing your nasal passages helps a lot. If you have household allergies, cleaning your house and surroundings will help remove allergens relating to cats, dogs and dust. You can place a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter in the room you spend the most time in, like the bedroom, to help clear the air of allergens. If your allergies involve wheezing or respiratory difficulty, or if you have associated infections frequently and you're losing time from school or work, that's a definite indication to consider allergy shots. It's a matter of how badly your allergies interfere with your life.

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