Allergy Cures: The Truth Behind 10 Myths
Sniffling, sneezing – and perplexed? Allergies are frequently misunderstood. Get a better grip on this condition, so you can avoid triggers and manage symptoms.
One in five Americans has allergies — and the numbers are growing. So are misconceptions and myths about the condition.
Allergy symptoms – congestion, sneezing, watery eyes, sleeplessness, stuffy nose, and hives – are caused when the immune system reacts to normally harmless particles (dust mites, pollen, animal dander) as if they were threatening the body.
If allergies are making you miserable, don’t add to your suffering. Learn what’s fact and fiction and clear your head.
Myth #1: Moving to a dry climate will cure your allergies.
True. A dramatic move may work if you’re allergic to dust mites, which thrive in hot, wet climates and die when the humidity falls below 40%, according to the American College of Allergies, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI) in Arlington Heights, Ill.But allergens are everywhere, says Kelly Stone, M.D. a staff clinician at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Before you pack up for the desert, consider this:
Don’t relocate until you’ve seen an allergy specialist, who will expose you to allergens to see which trigger a reaction.
Myth #2: Increasing exposure to allergens will build a tolerance to them.
True - sometimes. A 2008 study by Greek researchers showed that children allergic to eggs were able to increase their tolerance when exposed to tiny amounts of the allergen.
But don't try this at home, says Marjorie Slankard, M.D. an allergist and clinical professor of medicine at New York’s Columbia University.
Over time, people may build tolerance, “but only in very controlled circumstances working with an allergist,” she says. By exposing yourself to an allergen, “you could make yourself more allergic and have a major reaction.”
Myth #3: Short-haired, hypoallergenic pets won’t cause allergies.
False. “There’s no such thing as a truly hypoallergenic pet,” Dr. Stone says. “It’s not just the fur; it’s the dander, skin secretions and saliva.”
And all animals — even hairless ones — have skin and saliva.
It’s true that some dogs don’t produce allergy-triggering proteins and some people are less allergic to certain breeds, Dr. Slankard says. “But you can’t be sure that a person won’t react.”
If your allergy-prone family is desperately seeking Fido, take a test drive first. Some breeders will allow you to take a pup home for a few days to see if you’re compatible.
Myth #4: Allergies are uncomfortable but not dangerous.
False. The sixth leading cause of chronic disease in the U.S. allergies are serious business.
“Allergies to things like bees, shellfish and peanuts can kill someone in less than 15 minutes because of anaphylactic shock,” Dr. Slankard says.
During anaphylactic shock, your immune system releases chemicals that drop your blood pressure and narrow your airways so you can’t breathe.
“Untreated allergies can lead to asthma, sinus disease and chronic coughing” — and can be deadly, adds Stanley Fineman, M.D. an allergist with the Atlanta Allergy and Asthma Clinic.
Of the 10 million Americans with asthma, for example, about 6,000 die every year of its complications. And prevalence of the disease rose 75% from 1980 to 1994, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunotherapy (AAAAI) in Milwaukee.
Sometimes parents brush off children’s allergies as “part of growing up,” Dr. Fineman says, but ignoring them can be deadly.
If your children have frequent attacks, see an allergist, have antihistamine on hand and limit their exposure to allergens.Common triggers include:
Myth #5: You can build a tolerance to allergy medications.
False. Send this bit of folk wisdom back to the attic.
“That was true in the past with [earlier] antihistamines,” but not with newer ones, Dr. Fineman explains. “They’re longer acting and more effective.”
But what if your antihistamine relieved symptoms in summer but not fall? Your allergies may have worsened because of environment changes, such as moving to a new home, more dust piles or changing seasons.
A stronger antihistamine may do the trick. But switch medication only “if it’s not working anymore and consult your health care provider first,” Dr. Fineman says.
Myth #6: You’ll outgrow childhood allergies.
True and false. Some people have fewer symptoms as they get older, "but the allergy will always be there,” Dr. Fineman says. That’s because it’s part of their DNA.
If you had mild allergies as a child, “the better your chances are for outgrowing” them, says Chad Masters, M.D. a family physician at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla.
If the reactions were severe, the allergy triggers will probably dog you for years.
Adults can also develop allergies, Dr. Stone adds, because of “a combination of genetics and environmental exposure.”
Moving to a new area, for example, could expose you to a plant you’ve never encountered before and trigger a nasty reaction that seems to come out of nowhere.
Myth #7: One medication will work for different allergies.
True. Allergies are all pretty much the same.
Whatever the allergen — a cat, dust mites or pollen — they’re processed the same way in the body. They produce the same pesky histamines that cause runny eyes and stuffed noses.
The symptoms of some might be worse or different (like a stuffy head for dander, but not for dust), “but the same medication can be used to prevent histamine from being released,” Dr. Masters says.
Myth #8: Breast-fed babies won’t develop allergies.
False. Breast-feeding can protect infants from some viruses and infections, but no scientific evidence suggests that it prevents allergies.
Still, it can’t hurt, because "breast-feeding will pass antibodies from the mother’s body to the baby’s," Dr. Masters says. “That gets the immune system activated early.”
Unfortunately, a mom can pass on allergies to her children. A child with one allergic parent is 33% more likely to develop the same allergies, according to the AAAAI. Two allergic parents boosts the chances to 75%.
Myth #9: Many adults are allergic to milk.
False - sometimes. “Many children are allergic to milk, but usually it’s outgrown,” Dr. Slankard says. But one in nine people — usually adults — are lactose intolerant, a condition that seems like an allergy but isn’t because it doesn’t trigger histamine production in the body.
Lactose-intolerant people lack the enzyme lactase, which allows most of us to digest the milk sugar lactose. That’s why they get bloating, stomach pain and diarrhea and other intestinal symptoms.
But some people can be both allergic and lactose intolerant. They suffer the gastrointestinal symptoms as well allergy symptoms such as throat swelling.
If you have only stomach problems, you can drink milk treated with lactase — it will say so on the label — without a reaction, Dr. Slankard says. Avoid such products if you’re allergic, because "they still have the allergy-triggering proteins.”
What if you get congested when you drink milk? That’s not an allergic reaction or lactose intolerance, Dr. Slankard says. “It’s just a reaction that’s not completely understood.”
If milk makes you stuffy, just drink it in small doses — but not when you have a cold.
Myth #10: Cooked foods don’t trigger allergies.
True — sometimes. People with a condition called oral allergy syndrome are allergic to pollens, particularly from birch trees, and can’t handle raw foods with proteins similar to those in the pollens.
The most common related foods are apples, pears, cherries and peaches — but the verboten list can include almonds, hazelnuts and strawberries. Eat one of these raw foods and your throat, tongue or mouth may begin to itch or burn.
If they’re cooked, no worries, Dr. Slankard says. Heat “seems to change the allergen just enough so people don’t have a problem.”
Do you suffer from allergies? These resources can help you manage your misery: