DETROIT — Te’nika Prince knew spring had arrived when her nose started running and her eyes got puffy and her head hurt and she felt miserable.
She has been struggling with allergies her entire life.
“I would have to keep tissue with me all the time,” says Prince, 35, of Westland, Mich. “When it starts, you don’t want to do anything. You just want to lie around.”
For several years, Prince has noticed that her allergies are showing up earlier in the spring and lasting longer in the fall, a phenomenon that has been observed across the northern U.S.
A recent study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that there’s been an increase in the length of the ragweed allergy season, and ties the change to global warming. The study, which compared 2009 and 1995 data, has extended the official allergy season by 16 days in Minneapolis and in Fargo, N.D.
The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America says that allergy prevalence overall has been growing across all age, sex and racial groups since the early 1980s.
“We don’t know exactly why that is,” said Dr. Rana Misiak, a senior staff physician in allergy and immunology for the Henry Ford Health System. “There are a lot of theories, especially due to food allergies. Certainly, for the seasonal allergies, that does appear to be on the rise as well.”
In all, as many as 50 million Americans suffer from allergies, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation.
Cedarian Stuart-Payne, 12, of Warren, Mich., recently discovered that he has spring allergies. In addition, he has struggled with asthma and eczema.
“It’s been frustrating to him because he’s been miserable,” says his mother, Calandra Stuart. “He doesn’t sleep at night.”
Some people with allergies can be treated with over-the-counter medications such as antihistamines and decongestants, taken as pills, liquid, nasal spray or eye drops. Doctors can also prescribe other allergy medications or offer allergy shots, where a patient is injected with small doses of the substance that they are allergic to in an effort to reduce the reaction to allergens over time.
Calandra Stuart said Cedarian is now taking prescription allergy medications.
“He looks better,” she said. “He just started taking the medicine. He’s doing OK.”
Having an allergy increases your risk of other medical problems, including asthma, eczema, sinusitis, infections of the ears or lungs, another allergy, fungal complications in the sinuses or lungs and anaphylaxis, which is a life-threatening allergic reaction.
For Prince, congestion from allergies led to ear troubles.
“According to my ear, nose and throat doctor,” Prince says, “I was getting ear infections because of my allergies.”
At one point last year, an ear infection caused temporary hearing loss. She works in medical billing at Henry Ford Health Systems and missed two months of work until she recovered and regained her hearing.
“If I can’t hear,” Prince says, “I can’t do my job properly. I finally went to the doctor, and someone mentioned allergy shots.”
She started with allergy shots last year and has seen improvement.
“I can’t believe I suffered all this time without the shots,” she says.
“My life has changed dramatically from the shots. I’m able to go out around the things I’m allergic to and not have to suffer as much. I’d say that it’s really changed for the better. I feel much better, way better. It’s amazing. I’m in a good place. I’m really happy. My allergies are way better than before.”
Even though more people have allergies and the allergy season might be growing longer, that doesn’t mean that anyone has to suffer more, Misiak stresses.
“Those symptoms can be controlled and can be treated, so that even though a person does have allergies, they can still have their symptoms managed and under control, so they can do the things they want to do,” Misiak said.
She said one of the most rewarding things about her job is “when someone is able to start feeling better, breathing better, able to do all the activities they enjoy without being limited by the symptoms they were experiencing.”
Allergies can be far more serious than itchy eyes and a sniffly nose.
A severe allergic reaction — anaphylaxis — can lead to difficulty breathing, shock or even death.
If you have a severe allergy, you can carry an emergency epinephrine shot to reduce symptoms until you get to a hospital.
Triggers for the most severe allergies include:
Prescription and over-the-counter medications
Venom of stinging insects such as yellow jackets, bumble bees, honey bees, wasps, fire ants
Shellfish, fish, nuts, fruit, wheat, milk, eggs, soy products
Food additives, such as sulfites
Transfusion of blood or blood products
Sources: The Mayo Clinic and www.emedicinehealth.com
Airborne allergens, such as pollen, animal dander, dust mites and mold.
Certain foods, particularly peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish, shellfish, eggs and milk.
Insect stings, such as bee or wasp stings.
Medications, particularly penicillin or penicillin-based antibiotics.
Latex and other substances that can cause allergic skin reactions.
Family history of asthma or allergies
Although you can become allergic to something at any age, children are more likely to develop an allergy than are adults. Children sometimes outgrow allergies.
Source: Mayo Clinic