The symptoms can start small: a slight itching of the eyes, a minor burning of the throat. Some Oklahomans sneeze and suffer nasal congestion only at certain times of the year, usually when ragweed and mold counts are high. But for others, nasal allergy symptoms are a nonstop problem.
For those with severe seasonal allergies, symptoms are nothing to sneeze at, costing both consumers and employers in money spent to treat allergies and lost productivity at work.
"Oklahoma doesn't just have one or two 'allergy seasons,'" said Dr. Vicki Conrad, an Edmond family practice physician who treats allergies. "It's always allergy season of some sort in Oklahoma. It's almost nonstop, besides a few weeks after a hard freeze when we get a break."
The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) ranked the 100 most challenging cities to live in for people with seasonal allergies this year; Oklahoma City ranked No. 4, up last year from No. 9.
For the more than 35 million Americans that suffer from seasonal allergies in the fall, the bad news is that December through spring brings additional allergens. The good news is something can be done to bring relief.
'S NOT A LAUGHING MATTER
Oklahoma City resident Amy Lasater knows the pain of the sinus, the watering of the eye. Yet, this fall, Lasater said her allergies have been even worse.
"This fall was the worst ever," she said. "It's never been as bad as this fall was. I'm allergic to mold and ragweed, and all fall, I had the itchy eyes, my nose burned and I was congested. I got to feeling really bad."
It became bad enough to visit a doctor and spend dollar after dollar on antihistamines and treatments.
"I'm one of those 50 million who are uninsured because I own my own business," she said. "I've tried over-the-counter, but finally I had to go to the doctor and get a cortisone shot."
All in all, Lasater said she spent nearly $100 in one month on allergy-related products and medications. She also missed out on activities she normally enjoyed.
"I'd keep the house closed up, and I had to stay inside a lot, which really affected me," she said. "Staying indoors all the time really stinks, but it helps."
According to the AAFA, the annual cost of allergies is estimated to be nearly $6 billion, with $5.7 billion spent on medications and $300 million spent for office visits. Allergies are the fifth leading chronic disease and a major factor in work absenteeism, resulting in nearly 4 million missed workdays a year. That translates to more than $700 million in lost productivity.
"Allergies are more severe that you realize," Conrad said. "People tend to think of allergies as being not a big deal, but it affects not only quality of life, but people. So you have a decrease in productivity due to the way they feel and the medications."
Additionally, swollen and irritated nasal passages can result in sinus infections and more serious symptoms.
SNUFFING THE SNOT
During the fall, when outdoor allergy triggers peak, the suffering doesn't end when you head inside. People may continue to suffer from indoor allergies caused by common allergy triggers like pet dander and dust mites. In addition, allergens like ragweed and pollen can travel indoors through open windows and doors, and even on clothes and hair.
"When you are dealing with pollen allergies, that's where antihistamines are helpful, but you don't have to take one on a daily basis," Conrad said. "You can keep windows shut and use an antihistamine 30 minutes before you go outdoors."
She also said pollen sufferers should wash their hair before bed to clean out pollens and to avoid drying clothes outdoors.
Mold, which tends to flare in November and December, can be controlled by limiting the humidity in the home.
"You should really have 40 to 50 percent humidity in the home. If it's over 55 percent, you see an increase in dust mites and mold," Conrad said. "Also, wash sheets in hot water and keep your pillows clean. Sometimes, if it's very bad, I'll recommend that a patient throw out their pillows twice a year."
Leiah Miller, a product manager for Arm & Hammer, said sales of allergy-reducing products, like vacuum accessories, have increased in October over previous years.
"The EPA has said that air pollution in the average American home is usually two to five times worse than outdoors," Miller said. "Many consumers understand that filtering the air inside of their homes is very important, especially for allergy sufferers."
Besides medications, allergy patients have products to choose from.
"Whether they choose nasal sprays and antihistamines or purchase products to help filter allergens out of their homes, indoor and outdoor allergy sufferers commonly prepare themselves most during the fall and spring," she said. "One of the best ways to reduce allergens in the home is to develop a cleaning routine that works to keep them out. Before you turn on your heat for the first time each fall, have your heating ducts cleaned because mold, dust and other allergens can become trapped in the vents.
"Vacuum often with a machine that features a sealed HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filtration system. Allergy sufferers should also clean items that absorb or hold loose dirt, like floor mats and curtains, outside to keep irritants away from the hub of the home." "Heide Brandes