Are you or a family member one of the millions who suffer with seasonal or environmental allergies? These allergies can negatively affect your daily life and even your ability to sleep. Dr. Ahmed Butt, clinical professor at Medical College of Virginia, and one of three doctors at Allergy & Asthma Centers of Fredericksburg & Fairfax, is here to help with advice and answers to important allergy concerns.

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The Doctors of Allergy & Asthma Centers of Fredericksburg & Fairfax. (from left) Seth C. Craig III, M.D.; Ahmed Butt, M.D. ; Andrew S. Kim, M.D.

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If my child has environmental allergies are they at a higher risk for asthma?
Yes, environmental allergies are a major and consistent risk factor for the development of asthma. In fact, most asthmatics (about 80 percent) have seasonal allergies and uncontrolled sinus symptoms may adversely impact their asthma control. Typically, environmental allergies develop prior to the onset of asthma; therefore, a comprehensive allergy evaluation combined with skin testing may be helpful in determining which children are more likely to develop it.

What are the signs of an asthma attack?
Asthma is associated with airway inflammation or narrowing that may cause disruptions in normal breathing. During an asthma exacerbation (attack) the airways become more swollen and the muscles around the airways can tighten. Typically this results in chest tightness, coughing, wheezing (a whistling sound emitted from the lungs), and/or shortness of breath. Mild symptoms of an asthma flare up may be detected early by lung function testing. Implementing appropriate treatment at the onset of an asthma attack may help prevent a hospitalization.

Is there anything we can do before allergy season to prevent or lesson allergy symptoms?
Pollen counts (i.e., grass, tree, ragweed) vary during different times of the year. Depending on the cause of your symptoms, certain medications can be implemented before the start of season to keep your symptoms under control. An allergist can help identify the allergens causing your symptoms, thereby incorporating a personalized treatment plan to suit your needs. Aside from medications, having a lifestyle modification plan prior to the rise of pollen counts may help as well. Contact your allergist ahead of time and be prepared.

How early in life can children start showing symptoms of environmental allergies?
Seasonal allergies generally develop after a few years of life, but a subset of people may develop environmental sensitivities much earlier. Having other allergic conditions (i.e., eczema, asthma, food allergies) and/or a family history of allergies may predispose an individual to develop environmental sensitivities in early childhood. Sensitization, particularly to indoor allergens (i.e., dust mites, pet dander, cockroach), may occur in children even younger than 2 years of age resulting in sinus, eczema and/or asthma problems. An evaluation by an allergist can help determine if your child requires further testing.

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If my infant is allergic to a beloved pet, what can we do to help ease their symptoms? Do I need to worry about them worsening over time?
Removing the pet from the household isn’t always necessary in order to prevent allergy symptoms. First of all, it is important to accurately identify the allergen(s) prior to formulating a treatment plan. If a pet allergy is confirmed, then taking steps to minimize exposure to the pet dander is essential. Keeping pets out of the bedroom, especially off your bed, is a good start. Also, removing carpeting or rugs that can harbor pet dander and other allergens can be helpful. Medications can also be used if lifestyle modifications don’t control your child’s symptoms. Pet allergies can worsen over time, as can sensitivities to other allergens (i.e., dust mites, pollen). An allergist can determine your child’s risk of developing additional allergies, as well as develop an effective treatment plan.

How can I safely manage my seasonal allergies while pregnant or breastfeeding?
It’s not uncommon for patients who are pregnant or breastfeeding to feel uneasy about taking medication(s) for their seasonal allergies, but it’s important to keep your symptoms under control. Uncontrolled seasonal allergies may cause disturbances in a person’s sleep, mood, energy and overall quality of life. Also, people with seasonal allergies are more likely to suffer from sinus infections. Certain medications for treatment of allergies have been found to be safe to use during pregnancy or breastfeeding. It is best to consult your doctor prior to starting a medication.

Can consuming local honey or bee pollen help reduce symptoms from pollen allergies?
Scientific evidence does not support the use of local honey or bee pollen for treatment of allergy symptoms. Typically, seasonal allergies are triggered by wind-borne pollens, as opposed to pollens spread by insects. The floral pollens collected by bees do not cause allergy symptoms; therefore, it’s unlikely that honey would provide any therapeutic benefit.

Do hypoallergenic dogs and cats actually exist?
To date, no published literature indicates that “hypoallergenic” dogs exist; therefore, pet owners need to implement effective lifestyle modifications and/or medications to control their symptoms. Many pet allergic patients choose the option of allergy shots (immunotherapy) which may help them to reduce or eliminate the use of medications. Talk to your allergist/immunologist to learn more about which treatment option is right for you.

If I know my child is allergic to bee stings should I be equally concerned about stings from other flying insects, such as wasps?
Bees are categorized in the Apidea family and wasps are in the family Vespidae; therefore, the allergens in the venom between these insect families are distinct enough that the risk of your child having a reaction to a wasp sting is low. On the other hand, a wasp allergic person is at a higher risk of a reaction to other insects in the Vespidae family (i.e., yellow jackets, hornets). The problem is most victims cannot identify the sting culprit and since sting-related reactions account for over 30 percent of life threatening cases in emergency departments, getting an accurate diagnosis is imperative. Many insect allergic patients receive venom shots from their allergist to prevent a subsequent reaction if they are stung again.

When is allergy testing appropriate?
Allergic symptoms can range from minor discomfort to anaphylaxis (a potentially life-threatening reaction). By understanding the cause of a person’s symptoms, effective personalized treatment can be implemented with a scientifically based approached. Allergy tests, combined with a thorough medical history and physical examination can give invaluable information to what you are, and are not, allergic to. Testing done by an allergist is generally safe and effective for people of all ages, including infants. The allergen extracts used for testing meet the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requirements. So, if you are one of the millions of people affected by spring time allergies, be prepared this season by visiting your local allergist/immunologist to help you feel better and live better.