Now that the kids have been back at school for a few weeks, colds and sore throats are starting to peak in the community. It’s predictable every year. But this is also hay fever season — a misnomer, by the way, as the reaction is to pollen in the air from ragweed. There’s no hay around and it’s not associated with a fever. That’s why the proper term is seasonal allergy. So which is it: a cold you caught from your kid or have you developed an allergy?

First point: Yes, you can develop an allergy at any stage in life. It’s a function of genetic predisposition and the amount of pollen in the air. It’s possible you have the predisposition but never develop the allergy because you are never exposed to the pollen or not enough of it to trigger the reaction. Some years are definitely worse than others and unfortunately the trend is for the seasons to become tougher because there’s more pollen. The weather is changing and the end result is more ragweed and a longer growing season. The risk persists until the first frost.

Seasonal allergy symptoms include runny nose; itchy, tearing eyes; sneezing; cough; a bit of a “tickle” at the back of your throat.

Cold symptoms include fever; muscle aches and pains; chills; cough, sometimes with some phlegm; runny nose; headache; really sore throat with difficulty swallowing and perhaps loss of your voice.

How can you manage seasonal allergies? Try to avoid being outdoors when the pollen counts are the highest. If you are spending time outdoors, change your clothes immediately when you get home and perhaps even shower, a quick rinse, to wash the pollen off you body and not bring it inside. Don’t hang your laundry to dry outdoors as it will bring in the pollen along with the lovely smell. Close the windows in your house and car. If you’re using the air conditioning in either, make certain that the air filters have been properly cleaned.

If the symptoms are still driving you nuts, there are over the counter eye drops and antihistamine pills that won’t tend to put you to sleep and that work. Check with your pharmacist to make certain that they are safe for you especially if you have underlying health conditions or are already on other medications. At some point the diagnosis should be confirmed by your family doc to make certain it’s that and not another health issue and also to optimize your care. You may need to be seen by an allergist for skin testing to confirm the diagnosis.

The good news is that we have a range of treatments available from prescription eye drops and nasal sprays, to more powerful oral antihistamines and injections that will desensitize your body so you won’t react so strongly to the pollen. We now also have a daily pill that dissolves under the tongue that can replace the desensitization shots for some people with seasonal allergies. So you do have options, so you don’t have to be so miserable.

Why do you get sick when you travel?

Ever wonder why you always seem to get sick when you fly somewhere? There are a number of factors:

1. The dry air in the airplane dries out the mucous membranes in your nose and throat and makes them less-effective barriers to the nasties lurking in the environment;

2. Travel throws our natural body rhythm (the circadian rhythm) out of synch, which affects our immune system’s function. As well, it plays havoc with knowing when to take your meds and your sleep.

We know that lack of sleep also affects your ability to fight off disease. But it turns out that passing through security may also contribute. No, it’s not the embarrassment or the stress of being checked, nor walking around in stocking feet because you had to put your shoes through. Those plastic bins that you are obliged to put your personal belongings in are the culprit. Finnish and British researchers who were interested in how dangerous viruses might spread in case of a pandemic (remember SARS?) swabbed those plastic bins, sampled the air, swabbed elevator keys and bathroom doors in the main airport in Finland during last year’s flu season. Of everything they swabbed, guess what was the most likely to have viruses on it that could get you sick.

Yup, you guessed it, those bins. Turns out about half were contaminated. This makes sense. The plastic surface is one on which viruses can live. They are handled by hundreds of passengers as they are used over and over again. And it’s very tough to clean them between each passenger. They were even dirtier than the bathrooms.

So next time you fly, once you step out of the security checkpoint and have put your shoes, belts and everything else back on, use some hand-sanitizer or go wash your hands with soap and water to reduce the risk that the virus you’ve just been exposed to makes you sick. By the way, it’s always a good idea to travel with an alcohol-based hand-sanitizer and to use it regularly as you fly because you can expect to be exposed to many cold virus-contaminated surfaces during your travels.

Dr. Mitch Shulman is an Assistant Professor, Dept. of Surgery, McGill Medical School and an Attending Physician, Emergency Department, McGill University Health Centre. He’s also the CJAD AM 800 Medical Consultant.

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