Robert Hayden, DC, PhD, FICC
Henry Ford once told consumers that they could have one of his cars in any color they wanted, as long as it was black. This week your car of whatever color is likely yellow.
Yes, the pollen is out. That yellow powdery evidence of botanical reproduction is pervasive and pesky. If you walk outside, your clothes will be painted with it. You will track it into your home on your shoes. It will sneak into the inner sanctum of your home on the fur of your beloved pets. It will find its way into your nose and sinuses where it will wreak havoc. It is the number two complaint of everyone I have seen today, second only to universal dissatisfaction with leading presidential candidates of both parties. Frankly, both complaints will make one cry.
Tens of millions of Americans will suffer allergic responses in the form of rhinitis (runny nose), laryngitis, bronchitis, sinusitis, or asthma. It will get worse before it gets better because the pollen count is not even at its peak yet. It is just beginning. As I write this, here in Griffin the primary offender is tree pollen, followed by ragweed, mold, and grass.
The pollen counts are dramatically announced on the radio this time of year as meteorologists report the air filling with particles. The counts themselves may be deceiving, since even if they are generally low, if they contain pollens to which you are allergic, you may be symptomatic. And so it is that many of us are suffering. Sneezing, runny nose, congestion, watery eyes, and wheezing are common signs that you are having allergic reactions to the environment.
Our bodies are beautifully designed (“fearfully and wonderfully made,” according to King David) with defenses against microscopic invaders like this. Our noses are designed to shake out particulate matter when we inhale. Our upper airways moisten inhaled air to nearly 100% saturation by the time it hits our trachea. Microscopic hairs called cilia constantly beat the air to move particles away from the lungs. Our mucous membranes provide a liquid medium for white blood cells and antibodies to find and attack anything that gets through.
Before I leave this thought about how marvelous our bodies are, consider a sneeze for a moment. If an irritant from the environment breaks through your defenses and lands on the mucous membranes somewhere in your sinuses, sensory nerves take this information to a deep center inside the lower part of your brain stem that interprets this as an invasion. Your brain decides to clean your airway and rid itself of the trespasser. Finally, a series of reflexes takes over. You inhale deeply, dropping the pressure in your thorax. Your epiglottis partially closes so that when you exhale, air is forced through a smaller hole, increasing resistance and pressure. When you finally get around to blowing that air out, the velocity reaches as much as 100 mph. This local Category 2 hurricane and then expels the invader(s), coincidentally sharing and spreading it to everyone for about a 20 foot radius. Who could imagine such a fascinating series of events in a sneeze? Yet, it is natural defense mechanism for clearing the airway.
So what can you do? Here are some thoughts.
If you are particularly susceptible to pollen, forget fashion and wear a protective mask when you are outside. Especially if you are in the yard or working outside, this will go a long way toward protecting your airway.
Change the filters in your air-conditioning system at home and at work if you have access to it there. Run an air filter in your home or work space that will remove particulate matter from your environment. I keep one running in the clinic for this very purpose.
Humidity can be your friend. Use a diffuser with eucalyptus in it next to your bed when you go to sleep, or in the den where you watch television, read, or whatever you do in the evenings. Water droplets in the air make particles heavy, and they will precipitate before probing your proboscis.
Run your vacuum cleaner more often during these months. If you have a Rainbow, you may recall that it was a respiratory therapy device used to clean air long before it was a vacuum cleaner. Let it run in your house and clean the air completely (I have no stock in Rainbow.).
If these measures are not fully adequate, consider seeking an allergist. Allergy testing can narrow down the culprit(s) and help you focus on those. Desensitization injections can help you build immunity to the allergens that bother you most. The injections were partially effective for me.
Antihistamines and decongestants may be helpful. Most of these are over-the-counter medications, but they may be potent. Consult your pharmacist about the best things for you to use. There are side effects to every medication, and you will need to self-monitor. Remember that the use of these drugs should always be temporary. Avoid the nasal sprays that are addictive – oxymetazolone, for example, should be used with great caution.
There are people for whom conservative measures and even medications are not effective. For these, it is most appropriate to consult an ear nose and throat specialist for advice. Surgery is always a last resort, but sinus surgery can be life-changing. My experience with sinus surgery was that it ended 44 years of chronic allergic rhinitis, recurrent bronchitis, brutal sinus headaches, and the endless frustration that comes with all of those.
In the meantime, let’s all pray for the torrential rain that will take these miraculous seeds of new life down the Flint River. We will all breathe easier for it.