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The Sneezin' Season: Allergy Relief

Herbs may work differently from drugs to help quell allergy symptoms.

| March/April 2001

  • Vitamin C-rich rose hips may help lower your histamine levels.

Spring has sprung. And it may seem that your nose has sprung a leak. It’s that hay fever time of year. You know the symptoms: itchy, watery eyes; sneezy, drippy nose. If you only have these symptoms a couple of months, consider yourself lucky. Some people have sniffles and sneezes year-round because they’re allergic not just to pollens but to molds, dust mites, animal dander, and other airborne offenders. Others develop allergic skin conditions such as hives and eczema. And some people take it in the lungs in the form of asthma.

Most allergies, including seasonal ones, occur because the sufferer’s immune system over-responds. In fact, another term for allergy is hypersensitivity. The immune system detects a speck of ragweed pollen and reacts as if an army of streptococci had invaded. White blood cells produce a type of antibody known as IgE, which binds to a type of cell called a mast cell, which then secretes histamine and other inflammatory chemicals. These chemicals are to blame for your symptoms. It’s like seeing a cockroach in your kitchen, calling for help, and instead of a guy in uniform showing up with a nontoxic roach repellant, you get a platoon from the National Guard breaking down the door to take aim at the hapless insect.

Conventional medical doctors treat allergies such as hay fever with antihistamines, drugs that block the action of histamine. Older antihistamines—the ones you can find over the counter—help relieve symptoms, but they also cause sedation and excessive drying of the mouth, nose, and throat. Newer prescription antihistamines, such as loratadine (Claritin) and fexofenadine (Allegra), tend to be less sedating.

Another type of drug, cromolyn sodium, blocks the release of histamine from mast cells. It’s available as a prescription or over-the-counter nasal spray (Nalcrom, Nasalcrom) or a prescription inhaler (Intal) for the treatment of hay fever and asthma. To be effective, however, cromolyn sodium must be used daily during the hay fever season. If you wait for symptoms to appear to use it, you won’t see benefits.

If your drippiness transforms into stuffiness, you might be tempted to use over-the-counter decongestants such as phenylephrine (Dimetapp) and pseudoephedrine (Sudafed). These drugs work, but they can cause jitteriness and insomnia. Last year, the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning that the decongestant phenylpropanolamine, an ingredient in many over-the-counter cold remedies, had been linked to an increased risk of stroke and advised consumers to stop taking drugs that contained it.

Healing from a different angle

If you’re a regular hay fever sufferer, you’re probably looking for a reliable, safe way to stop the drip when it occurs. But according to Francis Brinker, N.D., author of Herb Contraindications and Drug Interactions (Eclectic Medical, 1998), no herb is known to act in the same way that pharmaceutical antihistamines do to block histamine’s action after its release.

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