A season for allergies: Q&A with Dr. Tao Zheng

After a long and harsh winter, spring has sprung and along with it, seasonal allergies. May is National Asthma and Allergy Awareness Month. For an update on what to expect this season and the latest in allergy treatments, YaleNews spoke to Dr. Tao Zheng, chief of the Allergy and Immunology Section at Yale School of Medicine. In addition to her research in immunology, Zheng sees patients at allergy clinics based in New Haven, Connecticut.


What do people need to know about the 2015 spring allergy season? How does it compare to those of previous years?

In spring and summer, many people are vulnerable to tree pollen and grass allergies. Trees and flowers all seem to be blooming at once, and that means a sudden burst of different types of pollen at the same time.

We are predicting that this allergy season may be one of the worst in years. In Connecticut and the Northeast, beginning in February and lasting until June, several types of trees — particularly birch, maple/box elder, oak, juniper/cedar, and pine trees — produce pollen that can trigger allergy symptoms.

 

How are seasonal allergies typically treated?

Allergic respiratory diseases — also known as allergic rhinitis and sometimes referred to as hay fever, and allergic asthma — are inflammatory diseases that cause sneezing, itchy/watery eyes, itchy/runny nose, and congestion, cough and wheezing. For millions of sufferers, antihistamines and nasal corticosteroid medications provide temporary relief of symptoms. For others, allergy shots (allergen subcutaneous immunotherapy [SCIT]) are a treatment option that can provide long-term relief.

 

A new oral allergy immunotherapy was approved by the FDA last year. How does it work?

SCIT has proven efficacy in treating allergic rhinoconjunctivitis and asthma, but it requires regular injections at a clinician's office, typically over a period of three to five years. Another form of allergy immunotherapy was recently approved in the United States called sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT) allergy tablets. Rather than shots, SLIT involves administering the allergens in a liquid or tablet form under the tongue generally on a daily basis. SLIT is similar to SCIT in terms of effectiveness, and both have been shown to provide long-term improvement even after the treatment has ended.

However, the treatment is only effective for the allergen contained in SCIT or allergy tablets. If an individual is allergic to ragweed and trees, the ragweed tablets/shots would only help control symptoms during ragweed season. Allergy tablets have a more favorable safety profile than SCIT, which is why they do not need to be given in a medical setting after the first dose. The primary side effects of allergy tablets are local reactions such as itching or burning of the mouth or lips and, less commonly, gastrointestinal symptoms. These reactions usually stop after a few days or a week.

 

What else can people do to survive allergy season — lifestyle changes or home remedies?

Spring is the time for warm weather and outdoor actives. To minimize pollen exposure:

  • Keep windows closed during pollen season, especially during the day
  • Stay indoors during midday and afternoon hours when pollen counts are highest
  • Take a shower, wash hair, and change clothing after working or playing outdoors to remove allergens that collect on clothes and hair
  • Wear a mask when doing outdoor chores like mowing the lawn

If you need help to prevent or control your allergies, talk to your doctor about seeing an allergist. An allergist can discuss the best treatment options available for you, which may include oral medications, topical nasal sprays, eye drops, or allergy shots and allergy tablets.

(Photo at top via Shutterstock)