Sniffle, Sneeze, Scratch: An Allergy Primer

For months—no, make that years—Linda Johnson of West Fargo worried about her son’s health. His nose dripped like a leaky faucet. “I don’t think Conner ever had a clean nose,” says Linda.
He snored so loudly she could hear him over the television while he slept in his upstairs bedroom. “It was almost like he had apnea,” she says.
He had an ever-present stomachache.
Worst of all, he was tired to the point of exhaustion when she picked him up from daycare during the week. “We lived less than a mile from our daycare, and Conner would fall asleep on the ride home and stay asleep clear until the next day,” explains Linda. “No supper. No jammies. He’d just sleep 14, 15, 16 hours a night.”
Doctors—and there were a handful of them through the years—wrote off Linda’s concerns.
“It’s just a cold.”
“He needs his tonsils out.”
“He’s just worn out from playing at daycare.”
These were all things Linda says she heard from physicians when she’d take Conner in for a check-up. It’s not that she suspected something serious or terminal; Linda didn’t honestly think her son was in mortal danger. But not knowing what was wrong with Conner was exhausting and frustrating for the single mom.
“It’s a hard battle. At least three doctors told me there was nothing wrong with him,” she says. “There were nights I’d come home and cry and wonder why someone couldn’t give me a straight answer.”
Finally, when Conner was about 4, Linda decided to trust her mother’s intuition and started gathering evidence. She documented Conner’s eating habits and recorded him sleeping. She jotted down his symptoms when things seemed to get worse. She took pictures of Conner’s nose to show how raw his nasal passages had grown from the constant sinus drip.
Linda began to suspect Conner had allergies, so she booked an appointment with an allergist.

The Basics
According to, an allergy is an abnormal immune response to things that are usually harmless to most people. Common allergens—the things that cause allergies—are dust, pollen, certain foods, medications, insect bites and stings, mold, chemicals, and animals.
“About 20 percent of the population is affected by allergies, and allergies have a great impact on your quality of life,” says Dr. Susan Mathison, an ear, nose, and throat specialist at Catalyst Medical Center in Fargo. explains when you’re allergic to something your immune system mistakenly believes this substance is harmful to your body. Once that happens, your body begins fighting that allergen by creating a variety of chemicals. One of the main chemicals is called histamine, and it’s responsible for most of the symptoms you’ll experience in an allergic reaction.
Symptoms can be mild or severe. Sneezing, watery eyes and nose, itching, hives, and coughing are some of the milder, but annoying, symptoms. More dangerous symptoms can include difficulty breathing, difficulty swallowing, swelling of the lips, tongue, and throat. This is called anaphylaxis and can be life threatening. In most cases, a person experiencing anaphylaxis needs to immediately be given a medicine called epinephrine. Epinephrine relaxes the muscles in your airways and tightens your blood vessels so your blood, which has rushed away from your brain to produce the chemicals needed to fight the allergen, can begin pumping safely back to your brain. Many people who know they have a severe allergy to, say, peanuts or bee stings, carry an injectable form of epinephrine, called an EpiPen, with them so symptoms of anaphylaxis can be treated right away.
No one knows for sure if you are born allergic to something or if an allergy develops.
“That’s the $100 million question,” says Dr. Woei Yeang Eng, an allergy and asthma specialist at Sanford Health. “People are still studying this.”
Eng says some researchers believe allergies are hereditary, but there is no definitive evidence. “The only thing we can say for now, with all the research data available, is that if your parent has an allergy or asthma you have a higher chance of developing those kinds of problems in your life,” he explains. “But we can’t say for sure that if your mom has asthma, you’ll have it. We can’t say that for sure.”
To be clear, just because your parent has an allergy doesn’t mean you’ll get it, too. And, says, “A person usually doesn’t inherit a particular allergy, just the likelihood of having allergies.”

So you think you have an allergy. Now what?
Like Linda did for her son, Conner, you’ll probably want to visit a doctor who specializes in allergies (called an allergist) or one who specializes in ear, nose, and throat problems. Expect to answer questions about your symptoms: how often they appear, family history, and how you’ve tried to treat your symptoms in the past.
You may have to undergo testing to confirm an allergy. The most common test is a skin prick where the allergist places a drop of solution containing the allergen on your forearm or back. If you develop a raised white bump encircled by itchy red skin—called a wheal—you have a positive result. The skin prick test is most often used to identify allergies to pollen, dust, pet dander, and food, says Eng. Results are quick.
If it looks like you’re allergic to medications or insect venom, the allergist may perform another fast-acting test, an intradermal test. This is an injection of the allergen just below the skin surface. A wheal indicates a positive result.
Blood tests are the best way to determine food allergies because specific antibodies and the amount of antibody in your body can be detected. Blood tests can also tell if a person is outgrowing an allergy. However, it can take a long time to get the results and blood tests cost more than the other tests.

The easiest way to treat an allergy is to avoid what you’re allergic to. This is the simplest and safest solution for people with food allergies. You need to be vigilant by reading ingredient labels and notifying organizations like schools or workplaces about the allergy—especially if anaphylaxis is a concern. “You always want to carry that epinephrine just in case,” cautions Eng.
Indoor airborne allergies are trickier to avoid and may require extra work around the house. You may want to clean and dust more often. Consider ditching your drapes and carpet, too, as both collect dust. Keep pets out of your bedroom (or don’t have a pet if you have a severe allergy to animals). If you have a mold allergy, stay out of basements and try to keep your bathrooms as clean and dry as possible.
Outdoor airborne allergies to things like pollen and ragweed are harder to treat. In many cases, they are seasonal and will flare up during spring and summer. Over-the-counter treatments like Claritin, Allegra, or Benadryl, or nasal sprays that have antihistamine in them can help control your symptoms, but they will not cure your allergies.
If none of those solutions are effective, you may want to consider allergen immunotherapy, or as it’s commonly called, allergy shots. This is a highly effective treatment if you suffer from airborne allergies like pollen, pet dander, and dust, but it won’t work for food allergies. Allergy shots are injections of a small amount of the allergen so your body can begin slowly working to produce non-allergen antibodies.
“Patients need to be on these for three to five years but usually get long-lasting immunity,” explains Mathison. “It’s the closest thing to a cure we have and it works for almost 80 percent of people, compared to 20 to 25 percent relief for patients using other prescription methods.”
Traditional medicines aren’t the only methods of treating allergies. Homeopathic and nature-based products are effective alternatives for people who wish to try an integrative approach.
“Herbal preparations like butterbur, nettles, goldenseal, and supplements like grape seed extract and quercetin may be helpful,” says Mathison.
Using a saline (salt water) mist or a Neti pot may help flush out your nose, and saline eye drops may clear out your eyes. The saline helps prevent the allergen from binding to your cells and causing an allergic reaction.
Two other treatments are also gaining ground and could have a profound effect in how we treat allergies. Sublingual immunotherapy eliminates injections. The allergist gives a patient small drops of an allergen under the tongue. It’s like getting an allergy shot without the needle! And, a new peanut protein treatment could help allergists desensitize people with peanut allergies. The idea is to eat a small dose of peanut protein every day in hopes of building up a tolerance. The results are promising.

Living With Allergies
As for Conner, he is now a healthy and happy kindergartner. Testing by Mathison at Catalyst Medical Center showed he was battling a host of allergies that were taking a toll on his immune system.
“He is pretty much allergic to everything airborne, especially cottonwood, which is what our property line is lined with,” says his mom. “He’s also allergic to a specific type of mold that’s commonly found in woodchips. And get this, the daycare playground is lined in woodchips. So he was virtually rolling around in his own allergen three times a day. It’s no wonder he was exhausted.”
Conner is also allergic to wheat, eggs, dairy, cats, and dogs. Linda says they practice avoidance as much as possible.
“We have undergone a huge lifestyle change in terms of our diet,” she says. “The change has been remarkable. Conner is a happier kid now. He has so much energy sometimes it’s hard to put him to bed! And he doesn’t have that constant tummy ache anymore.”
Dr. Mathison is treating Conner with allergy drops and recommends over-the-counter medications when his airborne allergies flare in the spring and summer.
So far, everything is working well. Linda says Conner is finally able to have the life he deserves. And she’s finally getting those nasal drip-free pictures she’s always longed for. “I didn’t have a picture with him in it with a clean nose for almost five years,” she says. “Now I do!”
Patricia Carlson is a freelance writer from Dilworth whose work regularly appears in publications across the country. She also crafts strategic website and marketing content for small businesses. Check out her work at

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