Kelsy Johnson

Winter has finally given way to a long-awaited spring thaw. As trees and grass finally have the chance to break out of the snow, seasonal allergies become problematic. Cottonwood trees near the Missouri River start releasing cotton into the air, and mold spores thrive in the warm daytime temperatures and cool evenings. For many people, the season irritates the nose, eyes and throat and puts a damper on outdoor activities.

While the spring allergy season is off to a late start, people who suffer from seasonal allergies may have an especially difficult time this year due to the amount of moisture throughout the region. Fortunately, most people can reduce and possibly eliminate their symptoms.

Dr. Krissondra Klop, a family practice physician at Sanford Health, says a lot people pass allergy symptoms off as a minor cold. Many of the symptoms are similar, including sneezing and nasal congestion. But allergies also cause post-nasal drip and facial pressure, among others, and the symptoms last much longer without the aches and pains associated with the common cold.

One of the tell-tale signs of allergy problems is a dark blue area under the eyes, similar to a black eye.

"Some women just think that they're tired," Klop said.

According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, about 30 percent of Americans suffer from allergic rhinitis, or hay fever. The majority of people suffer from these symptoms seasonally.

While some people can handle seasonal allergies on their own, Klop said it is best to go into a doctor when the symptoms become persistent and bothersome, interrupting sleep or causing the patient to cough all day.

Reducing exposure

Allergies have dramatically affected the life of Carrie Berger, a kindergarten aide from Center, N.D. Her symptoms didn't appear until age 30, but they required a lot of extra care.

Family trips have to be planned to circumvent the peak of allergy season.

"Medora is off limits in August and September," Berger said.

Until recently, her family lived on a farm outside of Center. When ragweed pollen filled the air, she had to take extra precautions by wearing a mask outside the house.

Klop said the first thing people can do reduce symptoms is to reduce exposure to allergens. The American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology suggests that people avoid going outside midday when the largest amount of pollen circulates. People who work outside during peak allergy season can reduce their symptoms by limiting the amount of pollen that enters the home. Berger makes an effort change clothes and shower immediately after outdoor activities. Klop suggests that allergy sufferers also invest in an air purifier as well. Berger's doctor also encourages her to eat organic as much as possible to avoid pesticides and hormones. Processed foods have been connected to environmental allergens. Berger shops at a gluten free store in Mandan and buys organic produce during her grocery trips to Bismarck.

"There have been times I've been really restricted in my diet," Berger said.

Over-the-counter treatments

Over-the-counter treatments also help reduce symptoms. Many people take antihistamines, which don't require a prescription. Klop said nasal irrigation, like a Neti Pot, can also reduce symptoms.

But for people like Berger, over-the-counter measures are not enough to manage allergy symptoms.

"I refer to an allergist if the more conservative treatments fail," Klop said.

Seeing a specialist

Sanford in Bismarck has one allergist who can test patients for specific allergies. The two options are a skin prick or an intradermal test. For the skin prick exam, the allergen is put into the skin through a small prick on the surface. The intradermal test requires the allergen to be injected into the skin.

Typically, allergists can prescribe immunotherapy, a process where the patient takes a small solution of allergy-causing substances over a period of time until the body becomes tolerant of them.

Berger traveled to La Crosse, Wis., in 2012 to see an allergy specialist at Allergy Associates of La Crosse. She had undergone allergy injections for 10 years but was "tired of being a pin cushion."

Immunotherapy had only been moderately successful in Berger's case. Her skin-prick test in La Crosse showed that eight of the antigens produced a strong allergic reaction, and two were severe.

While some of her symptoms had improved over that period of time, she wanted to try something new. Her treatment involves sublingual immunotherapy, where she takes allergy drops under the tongue three times a day. The allergy drops offered a potential solution.

While Berger is discouraged by the results of her last allergy test, she keeps trying to lessen the severity of her symptoms through medical and nonmedical means. "This is just another avenue for me to seek better health," she said.

There are numerous options to help control the sneezing, runny nose and itchy, watery eyes associated with seasonal allergies, but the most important choice is to do something. If the symptoms become too troublesome, a doctor may be able to identify strategies that will minimize their severity. The warmer months of the year are just too precious to avoid.

Kelsy Johnson, a native of Bismarck, works as a freelance reporter and nonprofit writer in Fargo. She divides her time between her two passions: storytelling and martial arts.

Kelsy Johnson, a native of Bismarck, works as a freelance reporter and nonprofit writer in Fargo. She divides her time between her two passions: storytelling and martial arts.