Allergies are to blame for more than 4 million lost workdays per year, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA). Yet, many sufferers believe it’s something they can manage on their own, without the help of a specialist. Not so!
“An allergist can help differentiate what is causing your symptoms,” says Dr. Jennifer Collins, an allergist at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary. “Knowing what the cause is gives you a lot of power to modify your medication.”
When should you seek professional help for your seasonal sniffles? Here are five signs that you might need an allergist.
1. You’re spending a fortune at the drugstore. You may have cheered the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval of prescription-strength allergy medications like Claritin and Zyrtec for sale over the counter, figuring it will save you the trouble of seeing a doctor every time your allergies act up. But have you thought about how much you’re spending?
“Those pills can cost $2 a day—there are a lot of other things you could do with that money,” Collins says. “And people who are young and healthy otherwise might prefer not having to take a pill everyday.”
A good allergist doesn’t just dispense drugs: She can help you come up with a multipronged approach to managing your allergies. It starts with identifying your triggers and learning how you can avoid or minimize them in your everyday life. Then, you can decide together what medication will work best, and what role it might play—whether it’s something you should take regularly or only as needed.
2. You get colds once a month, or generally sniffle and sneeze for a third of the year. If you seem especially prone to colds—and you’re not a kindergarten teacher—it’s worth investigating whether you’re actually suffering from allergies.
Remember that allergies tend to come on suddenly, without that gradual “I-think-I’m-coming-down-with-something” aching and fatigue. Itchy, watery eyes are another allergy tip-off.
If you know that what’s keeping you sneezing is allergies, and you’re suffering for a total of three to four months a year, you should be seeing a specialist. “You don’t have to live with a constantly running nose!” Collins says.
3. Allergies run in your family. According to the AAFA, if one of your parents has allergies, your chances of having them are one in three. If both parents are allergy sufferers, your chances jump to seven in 10. But allergies linked to genetics don’t always manifest in childhood. “You could be fine for a long time and suddenly develop allergies at any age,” Collins says. Even if your allergies are mild now, if your family seems to suffer quite a bit, chances are you’ll need an allergist some day.
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4. You routinely have to opt out of outdoor activities. Maybe you know you’re allergic to tree pollen, so you turned down that invitation to play in a kickball league. That’s often an unnecessary sacrifice, Collins says. “It’s so sad when I see kids in my office who think they can’t play sports because of allergies.” An allergist should be able to help you navigate various activities with your allergies, which may involve shots or a pill you take only occasionally. He can also instruct you on how to track allergens in your area, so you’ll have a heads-up on which days might be worse for certain activities.
5. You moved to a new city and are suddenly suffering. It’s not your imagination: Even if you’re in your 50s or 60s and have never had a problem, the vegetation and climate in a new location can trigger a latent allergy. Even stranger, it’s typically the second year in a new place when people really notice their allergies kicking up. That’s because your immune system’s first encounter with the allergen sensitizes it, and the reaction occurs the second or third time. So don’t blow off a new allergy as a fluke or something that will go away. Chances are, unless you move again, you’ll continue to suffer. Seek out a professional’s help sooner rather than later.