For many people, ragweed season has come and gone without much notice. But for others, it's been a time of suffering that may still be going on.
Ragweed is the most common cause of seasonal allergies. There are tens of millions of people in North America who are forced to deal with the unpleasant symptoms every year. For some it's simply a mild annoyance, but for others it leads to many days of impairment.
Ragweed (also called bitterweed) starts releasing its pollen in late summer and early autumn. Peak amounts occur around Labor Day up North, but may be as late as mid-October in the South.
Ragweed is a problem because of both the chemicals in its pollen and the physical characteristics of the pollen. Each ragweed plant is capable of producing 1 billion (this is not a misprint) pollen grains. These grains are so small, they are easily picked up in the wind and can travel hundreds of miles.
As most of you know from direct experience (a new survey indicates that 56 percent of people either have an allergy or live in a household with someone who does), ragweed is just one of many allergens that lurk in our environment.
The same survey indicates that 38 percent of all Americans are affected by allergies. Although this number is almost twice as much as many experts thought, it's not clear whether that's because more of us are developing allergies or because we're just measuring it differently or better.
Perhaps a major reason earlier statistics have been much lower is that many adults think all allergies start in childhood. So if symptoms start later in life, they are often passed off as a "summer cold."
This assessment is reinforced even more when the effects of an allergy cause you to develop sinusitis or a cough from postnasal drip. Please remember that, if this happens about the same time every year, you may have a seasonal allergy instead.
The America College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology -- the physicians' organization of medical specialists -- recommends some important steps in dealing with ragweed or any seasonal allergy, including:
Avoid outdoor exposure and exercise during peak pollen-release times from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m.
Engage in outdoor activities right after a rain, when pollen has been washed out.
When practical, wear a particle mask.
Wear glasses to decrease pollen in your eyes.
After being outdoors, bathe and wash your hair and change your clothes to remove pollens.
Check for local pollen counts in your newspaper, on TV or on the Internet.
Take allergy medication before anticipated higher exposure.
Begin medications before the season starts to help minimize the earliest symptoms and stabilize your immune system.
If medications don't provide sufficient relief or if you experience medication side effects, talk with your allergist about being vaccinated (or immunized) against allergies.
One of the ACAAI's biggest concerns is that many people who could benefit a great deal are not using allergy shots. This is either because of ignorance or lack of access. Their survey showed that 60 percent of people didn't know there was any treatment except medication. And most of those aware of allergy shots were concerned that they were too expensive.
Getting allergy shots starts by introducing small amounts of an allergen into your body. Your immune system responds, but at a low enough level so you don't experience symptoms. The amount of allergen in each shot is increased over time until you reach a plateau.
After that, it's recommended that you continue getting shots at that strength for years. After a few years, many people can discontinue the shots and maintain relief for a long time. Unfortunately, one can't measure when that time has come.
Although allergy shots have been used for over 50 years and have been refined a great deal over that time, they're not the answer for everyone. For some, they don't work at all or aren't much better than occasionally taking medicine.
And on rare occasions, a person may be so allergic to an allergen that his or her response to one shot requires immediate, or even emergency, medical care.
But for many, treatment with immune desensitization or allergy vaccination provides major benefits and relief at last. As with many medical treatments, you can't know how well it will work for you until you try it out.
Allergy shots have a significant cost, but they may be less expensive in the long run if they replace years of medications, decrease the amount of emergency care needed for allergic responses and decrease other medical problems caused by allergic symptoms.
Be sure to check your insurance plan (before selection of a plan, if possible) to determine if it reimburses for this type of treatment and, if so, under what rules and for how long.
If you're suffering from allergies or asthma and your efforts at prevention and medication aren't doing the trick, talk with a doctor, especially a specialist in this area of medicine. Find out as much as you can about doing what you are doing better. And ask about the benefits, risks and costs of trying allergy shots.
If you want to learn more about allergies and to talk with and learn from others about what they do for their allergies, go to the Better Health community by using the keyword betterhealth on America Online or point your browser to betterhealth.com.
The America College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology also provides more information and a quiz to test your knowledge at www.allergy.mcg.edu. Having read this article, you should do well on the quiz. You can also call them at (800) 842-7777 to get a free brochure.
Dr. Allen Douma welcomes questions from readers. Although he cannot respond to each one individually, he will answer those of general interest in his column. Write to Dr. Douma in care of Tribune Media Services, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, Ill. 60611. His e-mail address is DRFamily@aol.com.
This column is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or take the place of consultation with a doctor or other health-care provider.