Our green meadows, fields and woods will be out from under the snow within the next few months (hopefully). All of us love to play outside with our beloved pets and kids. Everybody enjoys to the fullest the summer break that we get from a prolonged winter. Fresh air is good for our health. But some of us get into trouble when we go outside in the spring. We get runny noses, sneezing, itchy eyes, and even sometimes shortness of breath due to all the pollen in the air. I met one person in Timmins, a northern Ontario city, who wore a mask during the springtime back when there was no pandemic. I asked him why and he replied that he cannot tolerate the weed pollen that blossoms during the springtime as it gives him very itchy eyes, runny nose, sneezing, and shortness of breath. He likes winter better as there is no pollen in the air. The very same person enjoys fall to the extreme as there is no pollen at that time either.
The scenario that I explained above is due to allergic rhinitis. According to UpToDate.com, it can come and go for some people, during a particular season like spring when pollen comes out of the weeds. It affects one out of five people of all ages. Those who have a family history of asthma and eczema tend to get allergic rhinitis more often than those who don’t have any family history. It affects people from all age groups but people who are in their 30s and 40s and children suffer the most. On many occasions, the same people do not suffer from any trouble when there is no pollen or other allergic substances.
Allergic rhinitis occurs as a consequence of a protective response to a small particle that enters the nasal passage. This reaction can also happen in the lungs, causing asthma, and in the eyes, causing allergic conjunctivitis, which makes them red, itchy and watery. Our nasal passages produce a chemical called histamine in response to pollen or small particles. This histamine causes symptoms like nasal congestion, itchiness, sneezing and a runny nose.
There are two types of allergic rhinitis: one is called seasonal allergic rhinitis that occurs due to pollen from trees, grass and weeds. Some big trees in Canada, especially poplar, maple, willow, birch, ash and pine, release pollen during the spring and summertime. In Canada, pollen season runs from mid-March to mid-June. Some weather channels in Canada broadcast information on pollen season from spring to summer.
Another type of allergy is called perennial allergic rhinitis which occurs due to dust mites, cockroaches, animal dander from our pets, and fungi or mould. This one is harder to treat.
Many symptoms may occur due to allergic reactions, including watery nasal discharge, nasal passage blockage, sneezing, nasal itching, and loss of taste, pain, or pressure in our faces. Itchy eyes, grittiness in the eyes, and redness and swelling of the skin below the eyes are other possible symptoms. For some people, their voice can become hoarse; sore throat, or itchiness of the throat and ears may also occur. These people may suffer from sleep issues due to mouth breathing, resulting in frequent awakening which causes daytime fatigue and can lead to issues at work.
How can we diagnose allergic rhinitis? For sure, if anyone goes to a medical doctor, the doctor will be able to give a diagnosis after hearing the history and sending patients for tests that would yield the diagnosis. But, we can also diagnose allergic rhinitis if we pin down our whereabouts. First, we need to identify where we go before the symptoms appear. Did we go to a grassy field or did we expose ourselves to tree pollen? Sometimes, pollen is too small to see, but if we look at our calendars we will see that it is either spring or summer – which is confirmatory for seasonal allergic rhinitis. For perennial allergic rhinitis, we will see that there may be dust mites or cockroaches in our homes or our pets may be releasing dander.
Now, how can we treat allergic rhinitis? The most ideal way would be to go to a physician to confirm this diagnosis and then take some medications that the doctor may prescribe. In general, we can treat allergic rhinitis by avoiding pollen. We can avoid going where pollen is abundant or we can put on masks so that it does not enter our nostrils. Some doctors recommend using antihistamine medication that is sold over the counter in pharmacies. They are not bad in the short term, but if the symptoms persist for a long time, then it is better to check with a doctor. There are some eye drops and nasal sprays sold over the counter for allergic rhinitis as well. In some situations, doctors may recommend nasal irrigation if the symptoms are severe enough. Some steroid nasal sprays can be also used, but it is better to see a doctor first before trying these.
As our winters are long, we should not be sad if we get allergic rhinitis during the summer season. We just need to be a little vigilant. The man I described at the beginning of this column enjoys outdoor activities a lot, but during pollen season, he dons a mask. Not a bad idea. But the best news is the pollen season does not stay long. Usually by mid-June it disappears. So there is no end of hope for outdoor enthusiasts who suffer from allergic rhinitis. Where there is a problem, there is a solution as well. we just need some tweaking here and there. Stay healthy and enjoy the upcoming summer!
Since completing a master’s degree in epidemiology from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Foyez Haque worked in northern and southern Ontario as an epidemiologist for more than a decade. During his tenure with several health units in Canada, he was involved in numerous public health research activities including publications in peer-reviewed journals. Currently, he is employed with the Northern Health Region as a planning and decision support analyst.