Mar. 1, 1999 LOS ANGELES (Feb. 25, 1999) -- For Los Angeles resident Dorit Brunner, it began with a severe bout of the flu that developed into a sinus infection. What followed were weeks of stuffiness, congestion and sneezing. "It was like I had a constant cold," remembered Dorit about the onset of her allergy problem. Her symptoms are now under control, thanks to a host of effective new agents that relieve discomfort without the traditional side-effects.
"Now I'm fine," Dorit added. "When I start getting sinus problems, I take the medication right away -- otherwise, the stuffiness can kill me."
Too many people suffer needlessly with allergies, according to Zab Mohsenifar, M.D., director of the Division of Pulmonary/Critical Care Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. In the Los Angeles area, allergy season begins in early to mid-March when pollens produced by a proliferation of blooming flowers, grasses and weeds attack allergy sufferers.
"If you can identify the offending agent and avoid it, that's great -- but not very realistic for most people," Dr. Mohsenifar explained. "There are now medications that are very, very effective in treating the symptoms of allergies without drowsiness."
For Dorit, that means taking the prescription antihistamine Zyrtec at the first signs of congestion and using Ventolin, a bronchodilator that "relaxes" the muscles around airways to make breathing easier. Though Dorit had no personal history of allergies until three years ago, she was aware of their disabling effects because her husband, Jesse, had struggled with severe allergies for years before finding effective treatment with Dr. Mosenifar's aid.
"For several years, I'd suffered along with my allergies," said Jesse. "Whole days would be wasted when I was inundated with a histamine response. I'd take over-the-counter antihistamines, but the side-effects were terrible. I was sleepy all the time and really felt miserable."
Now Jesse relies on Zyrtec as well when spring and summer arrive. "This works beautifully without any side-effects," he added.
Dr. Mohsenifar recommends treating rhinitus, or nasal congestion, with long-acting antihistamines that are available by prescription and, increasingly, over the counter, including Allegra and Claritin. Nasal sprays with cromolyn sodium such as Nasalcrom (available over the counter) can help prevent or reduce symptoms by blocking the production of histamines. People with allergy-triggered asthma can also benefit from these medications along with prescribed cortisone sprays, which contain steroids that reduce inflammation.
Though both Dorit and Jesse had undergone extensive allergy testing in years past, Dr. Mohsenifar does not suggest this as a first line of defense, except in very severe cases. "There is such a multitude of allergens -- and people can be sensitive to so many -- that it can be difficult to identify the specific agent causing the symptoms," he explained. "It's best to explore conventional means of treating the allergy with medication first and then, if still unmanageable, allergy testing can provide a second tier of investigation."
Despite the "good news" of more and better medications, the "bad news" is that allergies are here to stay -- and possibly on the rise.
"Studies suggest that the number of people with allergies is growing," said Dr. Mohsenifar. "Allergens are complex substances and, with the cross-breeding of plants and flowers, people are exposed to an increasing variety of agents that they may result in hypersensitivity." Which is why it's even more important to be aware of the medications available to help manage the signs and symptoms of allergy season, he stressed.
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