As The Wind Blows

When allergy symptoms strike, poor planners and productivity suffer

Back Longreads Apr 24, 2018 By Russell Nichols

Growing up in Woodland, Lisa Shelley remembers the dreadful days of wheezing and sneezing. She suffered from severe allergies and her childhood revolved around scratch tests and allergy shots as a specialist tried to build up her tolerance.

“My parents had to give away our parakeet and cat because I was allergic to them,” she recalls.

The allergy shots continued until she was 10 years old. Through high school, Shelley managed her symptoms by taking Dimetapp tablets.

“It seems to me that every year, people say their allergies are getting worse.” Lisa Shelley, owner & pharmacist, Corner Drug Co.

Now, as the business owner and pharmacist at Woodland’s historic Corner Drug Co., Shelley uses a prescription steroid nasal spray and over-the-counter Loratadine to treat her own symptoms while also advising customers on how to ease their own suffering. In spring, when the weather heats up, flowers blossom, bees spread pollen and allergy symptoms kick in, familiar customers migrate to the corner of 1st and Main streets, where Corner Drug Co. has been a long-standing local staple since 1897. They walk under the red and green neon sign to enter the family-owned business, many heading straight to the pharmacy.

“We sell gifts and toys and convenient items for people downtown, but our main business is selling prescriptions and that keeps increasing,” Shelley says, later adding, “It seems to me that every year, people say their allergies are getting worse. Sometimes people will have a couple of bad years in a row where allergies turn into sinus infections.”

Related: Seal or No Seal

Related: Medical director of The Allergy Station on advancements in allergy treatment

Most allergic reactions are false alarms, the effect of your immune system mistaking a harmless allergen for a real threat. Whether pollen, dust or something else in the air, the body senses danger and attacks, triggering various symptoms. There is no cure for seasonal allergies.  More than 50 million Americans suffer from allergies every year, and allergies are the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dealing with watery eyes, inflammation, itchy ears, irritation and a stuffy nose can also really hamper productivity in the workplace.

“In the U.S., allergy is a major cause of work absenteeism and ‘presenteeism’ (when workers show up for work, but are less productive), resulting in nearly 4 million missed or lost workdays each year and over $700 million in lost productivity,” reads a 2011 Allergy Report by clinical lab services company Quest Diagnostics.

You might have some control of allergens at home (read Seal or No Seal), but a workplace can make prevention complicated. Factors such as cleanliness, temperatures and ventilation systems may cause your body to overreact. Of course, the Capital Region is a prime location for allergic reactions. This is an agricultural basin, with crops, native trees and moisture from the rivers, but no coastal breezes to blow away the pollen and clear the air.

But there are ways for seasonal sufferers to cope.

COUNTER ATTACK

For some, drugs are the best way to deal with allergies. Antihistamines such as Allegra, Claritin and Zyrtec used to be available only with a prescription, but are now sold over the counter. In the last few years, nasal sprays such as Flonase and Nasacort have become popular products for fast relief, Shelley says.

“You can take those in addition to taking antihistamines,” she says. “They get into the sinuses and calm down the membranes to help stop the allergic reaction and irritation. Most people would need to use them regularly, once or twice a day.”

However, Shelley says a visit to the doctor’s office is warranted if nasal symptoms last more than a couple weeks or mucus becomes abnormal in color or consistency. She adds that a fever is also a sign to check in with your doctor.

Dr. Travis Miller, medical director of The Allergy Station in Roseville, doesn’t expect pollen levels in the region this year to be as high as in years past. But with rain expected throughout the coming months, he predicts a “very prolonged allergy season.”

When patients come to him for help, he reminds them to wear hats and sunglasses outside to block pollen from hitting exposed surfaces. “Some people will use respirator masks,” he says, “but some don’t like it because it makes them feel claustrophobic.”

His most important tip is to stay indoors during high pollen times of day, which is in the morning, and there are other natural remedies for those seeking to avoid medications.

BEE NATURAL

Can locally-grown honey relieve allergy symptoms? The research is divided, but many natural remedy enthusiasts believe ingesting the allergen (pollen, in this case) strengthens the immune system, helping it build up a tolerance.

The Bee Box, a honey, pollen and beekeeping supplies store in East Sacramento, is owned by third-generation beekeepers. Business usually heats up during allergy season as new and returning customers come to buy local wildflower honey at $8.99 for a jar. When honey bees gather nectar, explains Sara Foust, The Bee Box’s general and business development manager, they get trace amounts of pollen on their legs. It is a minuscule amount that exists in local honey.

A 2015 article published in Current Nutrition and Food Science highlights myricetin in bee pollen as “one flavonoid that proved to have an anti-allergic effect and therefore constitutes a possible instrument to treat allergies.” Some health sites, like Science-Based Medicine, say bee pollen claims have been overhyped. MedlinePlus, the website for the National Institutes of Health, says bee pollen may be taken for hay fever but warns that users may suffer allergic reactions. (Consult your pharmacist, physician or other healthcare professional before using bee pollen.)

In recent years, Foust has been telling customers about an alternative trend. She says the better, stronger option is taking raw bee pollen directly. It costs $7 for 3.5 ounces. and its high concentration makes it the quickest way to grow your immunity to local allergens, Foust says.

The potency means new users should start slow, with a one or two granules the first week and building up to a tablespoon a day. “Bee pollen is so much more concentrated, if you take a handful at once, it can cause a serious allergic reaction,” she says.

Allergies may get worse before they get better, she notes. She also touts bee pollen as an excellent source of protein, vitamins and antioxidants. It can last six months in the refrigerator and a year in the freezer. If cooked or left outside, the pollen will dry out and be depleted of its nutrients. To effectively guard against allergies, she recommends customers start taking bee pollen months before allergy symptoms typically surface.

“You want to have your immune system nice and strong before allergy season,” Foust says, “otherwise you’ll be chasing it.”

OPEN SEASON

The good thing about seasonal allergies is they come in predictable cycles, which means you can get ahead of them with pre-treatment. Get allergy testing to pinpoint your sensitivities for a more tailored and cost-effective plan to better manage your allergies at work, says Dr. Clifford Bassett, spokesman for the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

Remedies often include over-the-counter allergy medications, but some medications cause drowsiness, which can also impact productivity in the workplace.

To keep work flowing smoothly, business owners might look to invest in air purifiers to clear indoor air pollution caused by pollen, bacteria and molds. Certain plants may also benefit workplaces. In 1989, NASA released a list of houseplants that act as air purifiers, removing toxins like benzene and formaldehyde. Notable plants include the garden mum, dracaena and ficus.

Whatever the method, it’s important that both business owners and workers get a handle on their allergies before peak season or they might pay the price, losing money or business.

“Allergies, especially when not well controlled, have a significant impact on productivity in the workplace as well as affecting your personal appearance,” Bassett says. “Red watery eyes and a drippy nose does not make for an ideal client meeting.”

“The tighter you get your building envelope, the more you can filter out that stuff: pollutants, allergens, dust,” he says, “and improve the indoor air quality.”  

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