Allergies

A friend of mine told me about his bad allergies the other day, and it reminded me of how lucky I am that mine have been completely under control for the last few years. Here’s how my allergies got better.

Most importantly, I saw an allergist, and I can’t recommend that highly enough. When I was about 8, I got diagnosed with allergies by my regular doctor. He prescribed some antihistamines and sent me on my way. That’s not good enough. My allergies got worse and worse into my twenties, and finally I couldn’t take it anymore, so I went to an allergist – I wish I had done it much sooner.

Before he tested me or prescribed anything, he simply explained how allergies work in simplified language. He said I have a “tipping point” – let’s give it an arbitrary number of 10. When the things that bother me stay below 10, I might notice them some, but I’m basically OK. When they go over 10, my tipping point, I’m miserable.

So the key to managing allergies is keeping the bad stuff below my tipping point, and we did that in several different ways.

First, we tested what I’m allergic to – he suspected I’d be allergic to some foods, not just pollen. “I’ve got bad news for you, too – it ain’t gonna be broccoli. People often have an addictive-type reaction to foods they’re allergic to, so they’re probably going to be some of your favorite foods.”

Sure enough, in addition to all the trees and grasses I was allergic to, I was a little allergic to milk and quite allergic to eggs. Crap. He said if I stopped eating those things, it would make it that much harder for pollen to get me to my tipping point. So I stopped eating anything with eggs (including cakes, cookies, etc.) or milk (including cheese … pizza’s better with cheese, but it’s surprisingly good without it, too). My wife’s wonderful cooking made this tolerable.

At the same time, he recommended a regimen of drugs – most of these were prescription at the time, but now, they’re all available over the counter (unfortunately, this made them much more expensive for me, personally, since the prescription drugs were covered by my insurance). As soon as the first hint of allergies came each year, I started using Flonase every day and taking Allegra – there are competitors and variations on these things, but these are what he recommended for me. These days, I only buy generic knockoffs.

Flonase is steroids for your nose – it doesn’t make the problems go away, but it makes your nose and sinuses better at handling them (steroids = stronger). It can also useful if you have an earache. The dosing is really annoying – you can’t tell how much you have left … but it’s one of those things that has a cumulative effect over several days, so you might as well just calculate the number of days a bottle is good for and take it until it’s gone (120 squirts = 30 days).

I’m pretty sensitive to drugs, so I don’t like taking the ‘D’ version of Allegra. Instead, I go to the pharmacy counter, get plain ‘ole pseudo-ephedrine and take the minimal amount (the ‘D’ versions of antihistamines typically have 4 times that amount!) – and only when I’m pretty plugged up. I only take it in the morning, or else I can’t sleep at night.

Another super useful tool is Zatidor. It’s an antihistamine drop that you put directly in your eyes. Nothing brings more immediate relief to allergy eyes. It’s amazing stuff.

And don’t forget Benadryl. Even though it’s cheap and ubiquitous, it’s actually really powerful. The only problem with it is that it makes you sleepy (in fact, the same drug is sold as a sleep aid!). Driving with Benadryl is about as dangerous as driving after a couple of beers – don’t do it.

When things get really bad, I take some Afrin before going to bed. That stuff is super powerful – it’s like drilling new holes in your head – but you need to be religious about using it for no more than 3 days in one stretch; otherwise, you’ll have a nasty rebound. I haven’t used it for allergies in years, but I have used it for a couple of bad head colds.

The drugs helped to keep things under the tipping point – the next step was to move the tipping point itself. We did that with allergy shots.

Allergy shots aren’t drugs – instead they’re some sort of serum made from the stuff you’re allergic to. I’m oversimplifying here, but by steadily giving your body more and more of what it’s allergic to – in tightly controlled amounts over time – your body gets used to it. That tolerance gradually raises your tipping point.

I took shots for about 8 years. Eventually I noticed that my seasonal allergies weren’t bothering me much at all. A couple years later, I stopped taking the shots, and I still had no problems. Then I started eating milk and eggs again (yay!) … still no problems (except for gaining 20 pounds – dammit!). My tipping point has effectively been raised.

Now my allergies don’t bother me. At the first signs of spring, I start taking Allegra and Flonase every day for a couple of months, and it keeps me well under my tipping point. It’s great!

The moral of the story is that if you have bad allergies, please go see an allergist (at least if you can afford it). Doing so made a shockingly significant improvement in my life.

Also, recognize that our bodies grow in and out of allergies. Things change. Something might bother you for 20 years and stop bother you after that – or vice versa. Things are great for me now, but it could change. This isn’t like a surgery (although I know people who have had a surgery that literally drilled holes through their sinuses – that’s yet another option).

Finally, there’s still one situation that I have to watch out for: dust. Technically, I’m not allergic to dust at all, but after years of my nose being ravaged by allergies, my nose itself just doesn’t work very well. So if I breathe in some dust, I have a mechanical reaction to it, because my body can’t get rid of it. In other words, I sneeze non-stop for an hour or so. Super unpleasant. If I’m doing something like cleaning out my garage, I have to wear a face mask, or I’m going to be miserable.

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