By Mpho Masenya
Allergic sniffles and sneezes have spread like wildfire over the past few years, and it seems that pollen proliferation may be the root of the problem. The Real Pollen Count, a proudly South African organisation, reports that pollen seasons are getting longer, and levels of allergenic pollen are on the rise. It is believed that climate change, particularly global warming, is partially responsible for these changing trends.
There are myriad allergic diseases that have impacted people all over the globe. The World Allergy Organisation (WAO) reports that the prevalence of allergic diseases is rising worldwide, in both developed and developing countries. On the home front, South Africa is burdened with one of the highest rates of allergic disorders in the developing world. A 2015 study by Allergy Foundation South Africa (AFSA) indicates that the most common food allergens, in descending order, are: eggs, peanuts, cow’s milk and fish. Approximately 1.8 million children in South Africa suffer from asthma, and there is ongoing research into the reasons behind the rise of this particular condition.
What Are Allergies, Anyway?
Allergies are the result of a hypersensitive reaction by a person’s immune system to a particular substance in the environment that is typically harmless to humans. These substances are known as allergens. When someone eats, inhales or touches something to which they are allergic, the body reads this as an attack. The immune system springs into action and creates disease-fighting antibodies to guard against the intruder, leading to a chain reaction of events that causes a release of inflammatory chemicals such as histamine.
When having an allergic reaction, you may experience a combination of the following symptoms:
- Swelling of the face & lips
- Itching, warmth and/or redness
- Rashes, hives & other forms of dermatitis
- Coughing & hoarse voice
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Tightness in the throat
- Hay fever (rhinitis)
- Difficulty swallowing
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Abdominal pain and/or discomfort
- Dizziness or light-headedness
- Loss of consciousness
- Panic attack
- Metallic taste
The most severe form of an allergic response is anaphylaxis, also known as anaphylactic shock, which causes trouble breathing, tightness of the throat, a hoarse voice, swelling, low blood pressure, and loss of consciousness. This can lead to cardiac arrest or the closure of air passages, causing death by suffocation.
If you suffer from any severe allergic reaction – such as anaphylactic shock, asthma, difficulty breathing, or any other extreme discomfort – it is essential that you seek medical attention immediately and, if safe for you, get an epinephrine shot as soon as possible.
How Are Allergies Treated?
While no finite cure for allergic conditions has been identified, there is a range of treatments, tailored to specific allergies, recommended by professionals and allergists around the world.
The first course of treatment is avoiding the allergen; this, however, can be difficult for pollen-related allergies. With regards to medication, antihistamines are the most commonly prescribed drug, as they counter the inflammatory effects of histamine. There are also other innovative treatments such as immunotherapy, also known as desensitisation therapy.
Did You Know?
You can visit the Real Pollen Count at www.pollen.co.za to monitor the weekly pollen activity in your region. If you suffer from pollen allergies, this can help you become aware of when to minimise exposure to the outdoors.
My Journey with Allergies
I was born into a sniffly family tree of inhaled-allergy sufferers. As I was growing up, however, I started experiencing allergic reactions beyond those of the inhaled description. Some of my favourite foods – peanut brittle and peanut butter – caused a persistent cough, and delicious bananas, apples and pears turned my stomach. Those around me just thought I was a fussy eater, but the truth is that my allergies were blooming beyond my control.
In adulthood, I continued to avoid what I called ‘irritants to my system’. However, one allergy season, my symptoms became unmanageably severe, and my over-the-counter medications were causing side-effects that were interfering with my daily living. It was then that I made the decision to consult an allergist dealing in natural treatments and remedies.
I had a blood test done and discovered that I was sensitive to a huge number of allergens across all allergy categories, including pollen, grass, trees, wheat, soya, sesame, peanuts, bee stings and animal dander.
It was during this time that I received personalised desensitisation treatment. The therapy made use of my own antibodies and introduced the allergen to my system with the intent of boosting my immunity against it. Following the therapy, my allergic responses were noticeably reduced.
However, while procedural treatments and therapies can be of immense help and value, positive behaviours and lifestyle choices are a necessity for any allergy sufferer who wants to live life to the full.
Here are just a few ways you can help to keep your allergies in line…
KEEP A SHARP EYE WHEN SHOPPING
So often, allergens are hiding in places you would never expect. It is critical to always check the labels and ingredient lists of what you’re buying in order to protect yourself and your loved ones.
In the event that you will be eating out, take time to check the menu in advance. If this isn’t possible, take your time before ordering; keep it simple by choosing something with which you are familiar; and don’t be afraid to ask the waitron to double-check ingredients.
When travelling by air, make sure to let the cabin crew know about your allergies if/when ordering food. Even though the hypoallergenic meal option may sometimes be on the blander side, when it comes to your health, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
Another element to consider when travelling is lodging - particularly the roofing used by an establishment. For example, if you are prone to inhaled allergies, avoid accommodation with thatched roofing.
SENSITISE YOUR SOCIAL CIRCLE
Talk to the people in your life and explain your allergic condition/s to them, both so that they can help to keep you safe from exposure to triggers (especially when it comes to food preparation), and so that they can understand why you may act a certain way when there is a chance of a reaction, e.g. asking a restaurant to ensure that your meal is prepared in a different pan to avoid cross-contamination.
MOTHER NATURE KNOWS BEST
From the onset of my treatment, guided by a trusted professional, I selected the more natural route to avoid the adverse side effects that I had previously experienced as a result of pharmaceutical solutions. Furthermore, I wanted to stay true to my belief that I should do my best to prevent and manage ailments through nutrition and healthy life choices. As Hippocrates said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
Here are just a few things that can be included in your diet to boost your body’s resilience to allergies…
Quercetin is a natural flavonoid found in fruits and veggies that has anti-histamine, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties – perfect for snuffing out the sniffles.
You can get your daily side of quercetin from good-quality natural supplements or the following food sources:
- Elderberry juice
- Red cabbage
- Green hot peppers
- Red onion
- Red grapes
- Red wine
- Black tea
- Rooibos tea
It is believed that vitamin C may help to slow down a hypersensitive immune response to allergens by decreasing the amount of histamine produced by the body.
To arm your body with this vital nutrient, consider taking a high-quality natural supplement, and enjoy a diet packed with vitamin C-rich foods such as:
- Brussels sprouts
- Fresh tomatoes
- Bell peppers
Probiotic supplements can help to maintain a healthy, happy gut by restoring levels of good gut bacteria. Getting your recommended daily dose of probiotics - either from foods or supplements - can assist in immune functioning, as well as the prevention and management of some allergic diseases.
You can find probiotics in:
- Pickles and pickled foods
- Yoghurt, kefir, cottage cheese and other forms of fermented dairy
- Non-dairy kefir
Zinc is an essential element for hundreds of proteins in the body, and works to support immunity, thus helping to provide allergy relief.
Dose up on zinc with a good supplement or a combo of the following:
- Meat, especially lamb and poultry
- Legumes, chickpeas & lentils
- Nuts (unless, of course, you are seeking relief from a nut allergy)
I have also discovered a number of home remedies that have helped me with my symptom management, including:
- Ginger root & spice
- Contains antihistamine properties
- Acts as an immune booster
- Eucalyptus oil (used in a steamer or diffuser)
- Has anti-inflammatory properties
- Can offer pain relief
- Can help to clear sinuses and loosen mucus
- Coconut oil
- Rich in lauric acid
- Can reduce irritation and inflammation
- Can provide relief for itchy hands and body (not recommended for facial application)
Before using any supplements or consuming the above ingredients, please ensure that you do not have hypersensitivities to any of them. If you are considering seeking allergy treatment, make sure to consult professionals and reputable sources before embarking on any programme.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mpho Masenya is a writer, communicator, and advocate for basic nutrition education and awareness for wellbeing and the prevention of disease.