Your throat is swollen, and your nose is itchy and runny. Your eyes are teary, and you just sneezed on the person sitting next to you. Spring has sprung and so have your allergies.
Millions of Americans share your agony, and a bout one person in 90 suffers from allergies. Treatments can produce harsh side effects that leave allergy sufferers less congested and itchy, but just as miserable. Luckily, acupuncture and Oriental medicine provide effective alternatives that impose no discomforts such as sinus headache, fatigue and dryness of the nose and throat.
Termed allergic rhinitis, seasonal chronic inflammation of the nose, throat, and sinuses occurs when the body's immune system is hypersensitive to specific non-infectious particles. This itchy, miserable process, called atopy , involves various airborne allergens or other triggers that unleash a flood of activity in the immune system. This leads to inflammation and hyper-reactivity in the airways, hence the mucous and respiratory symptoms. Allergies can develop in anyone, but genetic factors play the largest role. Allergic rhinitis (seasonal or perennial) can be consistent or go into remission and disappear completely. It is likely that if you develop allergies after the age of 20, you will continue to have them in the future.
Ragweed, affecting about 75% of allergy sufferers, is the most significant cause of allergic rhinitis in the US . Ragweed is found all over North America, and its effects are first felt in middle to late August and last until the beginning of winter. Other allergy producers include grasses, which affect people mid-May to late June, mold spores that grow on dead leaves and are common allergens throughout the spring, summer and fall and tree pollen . Small pollen grains from certain trees produce symptoms in late March and early April.
With all these allergy-creating pollens, our natural reaction is to run indoors. However, we are not always safe there. Allergens in the house cause perennial rhinitis (year-long allergic rhinitis). Household allergens may include the following: house dust and mites, cockroaches, pet dander, molds growing on wall paper, house plants, carpeting, and upholstery. Researchers are investigating other possible triggers of perennial rhinitis: air pollutants such as diesel exhaust particles, bacteria (one study suggested that the allergic condition may lead to higher bacterial levels, which in turn may aggravate allergies) and certain chemicals such as refined fossil fuels.
Usual treatments for allergies include antihistamine drugs, nasal corticosteroids (commonly called steroids), and Immunotherapy, often referred to as "allergy shots." All drug treatments have side effects and in rare cases can be serious. Standard advice suggests patients should try different drugs until they find one that relieves symptoms without producing distressing side effects, minimize outdoor activity during peak pollen times (between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.) , shower twice a day, wear a protective mask and keep car and house windows shut. While this may work for some, others may find allergy symptoms inconvenient enough without having to hide inside, not breathe fresh air or enjoy the first peeks of spring sunshine.
The World Health Organization's 2002 study shows acupuncture to be an effective treatment for allergic rhinitis . Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) believe that attending to the causes of allergies, treating the whole person, and focusing on balance of the immune system leads to significant long-term allergy management. Year after year they continue to see the benefit of acupuncture for their patients. Lily Chang, a faculty member at Pacific College of Oriental Medicine who treats allergy and asthma, among many other health issues, believes Chinese medicine has unique benefits.
"Most of the time [acupuncture] is very effective because we treat the root of the illness," says Chang. "It depends on different situations, but in many cases, Eastern methods alone work really well."
For many, this can mean the end of struggles with the heavy effects of allergy medications. Modern scientific explanation for effectiveness is that acupuncture for allergy symptoms stimulates the nervous system to release chemicals in the body, which influence its own internal regulating system. The improved energy and biochemical balance produced by acupuncture results in stimulating the body's natural healing abilities. It can help to strengthen resistance and can regulate the body's antigen-antibody reactions. This is important in helping to relieve hay fever and other allergic reactions such as sinus headache, fatigue and asthma.
Acupuncture treatment varies from patient to patient but is relatively convenient and painless. Acupuncture for allergy symptoms is a fantastic alternative for people who react poorly to medications. Patients often experience some relief during the first visit. Nasal congestion, discharge, and itching are usually relieved during the first acupuncture treatment. Up to six treatments may be needed to give lasting relief of hay fever symptoms such as sinus headache, fatigue and sneezing. Some patients return for a series of six treatments each year just before what used to be their hay fever season. Others remain free from hay fever for years after one course of acupuncture treatment.
"It still depends on the patient's condition and the practitioner's experience," says Chang. "But I have great success stories from treating allergy patients with acupuncture."
Success rates will vary, but the number of allergy sufferers helped by acupuncture is growing. Practitioners will ask their patients to score their nose stuffiness on a zero-to-ten scale. Zero indicates no stuffiness at all and 10 the worst possible stuffiness for the patient. A score may be determined before and after the acupuncture treatment. Patients can also verify the benefit of acupuncture for allergy symptoms by noting the number of sneezes per day and the number of itching episodes around their eyes. After an initial series of treatments, patients return on an as needed basis. Some patients visit once or twice a year for a booster while others may seek treatment more often.
Diet can play a role in allergy severity as well. In general, patients have better success if they avoid sugar and dairy in their diets. Many patients who failed to be helped by medication and allergy shots respond to acupuncture. Some patients continue with whatever standard treatments they are currently undergoing while receiving acupuncture treatments. Most patients end up significantly reducing or eliminating their dependence on allergy medications. In this way, the benefit of acupuncture for allergy symptoms makes a big difference in a person's daily life.
Allergy season does not have to be an itchy, watery torture, and hay fever sufferers need not lock themselves indoors or fight effects of drug treatments. If you find yourself among the groggy and frustrated, alternative therapies such as acupuncture and Oriental medicine can help.