By Vera Westbrook, EDN
A neighbor to forests and the grass seed capital of the world, Eugene may be a sportsman’s paradise and an agricultural gold mine for some. But for others, the flourishing vegetation causes physical distress for allergy sufferers. Surrounded by mountains, the Eugene area also experiences temperature inversions that cause airborne particles to hover over the valley floor to further intensify allergy symptoms. Those annoying particles are seasonal allergens from trees and plants that begin pollinating in January, with grass pollen dominating in late spring. Seasonal allergies usually subside by July 4 depending on harvest conditions, but many folks also suffer from year-round irritants like dust mites, mold, and animal dander.
Common allergic symptoms include sneezing, sniffling, itchy skin, nasal congestion, and itchy/watery eyes. Asthmatic symptoms of wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath are also exacerbated.
While many might think that the allergy season in Lane County is over, the fact remains that a lot of allergy remedies require substantial time and preparation. So looking ahead to next year as early as now might make a lot of sense.
The diversity of allergy treatment modalities
Many Lane County allergy clinics, both allopathic and naturopathic, are successfully reducing and ridding symptoms. Practitioners of homeopathy, Chinese medicine, and acupuncture are treating allergies as well. Allopathic (or “Western”) medicine, the most popular therapy in the U.S., is available through many local clinics.
Dr. Justin Treat of the Asthma and Allergy Center in Eugene improves life for many using allopathic medicine. To suppress allergy symptoms, Dr. Treat often prescribes medications like oral antihistamines, steroids and inhalers. For chronic cases, he may recommend immunotherapy with subcutaneous injections of allergen serum.
To identify allergens, Dr. Treat sometimes performs allergy skin tests. He believes that,
“Knowledge is power, as it’s nice to know what is actually triggering symptoms.”
Skin tests are also helpful when preparing serum for shot therapy. Treat describes shot therapy as “a process of desensitizing people to what they’re allergic to through low dose injections.” Immunotherapy can begin with two shots per week administered in a clinic in the upper arm. Shots then decrease to every three weeks for three to five years, depending on the person. Treat says,
“Shots work for 85 percent of people, so they’re very effective with a varying degree of effect.”
Some people become symptom free, while others still need some meds on bad days. Treat’s patient Fiona FixMitchell, now 33, was allergic to dust, mold, several trees, grass, and everything except animals. She began shot therapy at age 26. She says,
“Before I started the shots, I felt like I had a permanent cold with a stuffy and runny nose, a sore throat, and some shortness of breath. [After two years of injections,] I got back my sense of smell, which I didn’t have for a long time.”
Food tasted better, her complexion improved, and she had more energy. After seven years, Fiona recently completed shot therapy. She still carries an inhaler for wheezing, though, which she’s only used once during the last six months. While Fiona considers the immunotherapy invaluable because it made her much healthier, there was certainly a price to pay. Without insurance, immunotherapy cost Fiona $1,500 to $2,000 a year.
Alternatives to conventional allergy therapy
Therapeutic alternatives to conventional allergy therapy also exist. Dr. Bill Walter of Golden Apple Healthcare practices naturopathic medicine at the Eugene Healing Center. Walter says that his approach to healthcare,
“Seeks to not only treat disease, but also to nurture and support the physical body, so that it is better able to stay healthy.”
He accomplishes this goal by spending ample time getting to know his patients. When treating allergies, Dr. Walter believes that he must first understand what the nature of the allergy is — this being confirmed by the same blood tests used by conventional doctors. He then studies a patient’s lifestyle to identify and remove any allergens. To minimize the allergic response, Dr. Walter may recommend vitamins, minerals, and herbs.
He prescribes conventional drugs if needed, but says,
“I have a lot of other tools that don’t involve medications, as many medications have significant side effects.”
To prepare for allergy season, Dr. Walter stabilizes the allergic response with herbs and nutrients for a few months before and during allergy season. For acute allergic symptoms, Dr. Walter may prescribe over-the-counter drugs like Benadryl and Claritin. For long-term allergy work to cure allergies, Dr. Walter prefers sublingual immunotherapy, where patients place allergy drops under the tongue instead of getting shots. Scientific research supports the drops, he says, which are less expensive, costing only $30-$45 a month. The drops also have fewer side effects and patients can administer them at home.
A patient of Dr. Walter’s, David Van Slyke, now 40, recently turned to naturopathic medicine after completing five years of shot therapy at another clinic. Unlike Fiona, allergy shots did not rid David of his allergies. His symptoms became less severe, but he was still often troubled by headache, runny nose, and congestion.
Dr. Walter recommended several products to stabilize David’s allergies. A few months before allergy season, David begins probiotic supplements and a combination herbal product. During allergy season, he takes the antihistamine Allegra. David also uses sublingual allergy drops. He’ll take the drops once daily for the first year, and then only six months a year during allergy season thereafter. David says,
“The allergy shots did help, but not as dramatically as these other products. But I’m not sure how well these products would have worked had I not done the allergy shots.”
With insurance, David paid about $270 per year for shot therapy, but now his maintenance cost will be about $380 a year, as the products are not covered by his insurance.
Today his quality of life has improved. David says,
“No more bad days curled up in bed miserably. I no longer need to consider my allergies when planning vacations or outdoor chores.”
The traditionally Chinese alternative
For those preferring the ancient wisdom of Eastern medicine, licensed acupuncturist and herbalist Debra Nash-Galpern treats allergies with Traditional Chinese Medicine. Debra practices at Healing Spirit, an integrative health center in Eugene, where she operates an on-site compounding apothecary stocked with more than 200 herbal formulas. Nash-Galpern says,
“I like to keep a wide-scope of herbs on hand, so I can instantly provide tailored formulas for individuals with specific health issues.”
The unique quality of Chinese herbs is that they are combined into formulas that are more effective than individual herbs. Nash-Galpern explains,
“Each patient responds so differently to illness as well as to treatment, that it is important to provide custom formulas for optimal healing.”
Nash-Galpern likes to begin treating allergies about 4-6 weeks before allergy season starts and continues therapy throughout the season. She starts patients with a loading dose of two formulas: a Chinese herbal formula that strengthens the lungs and increases resistance; and a naturopathic-type herb to keep inflammation down. This protocol allows people to minimize their reliance on conventional drugs. She also recommends one hour of acupuncture a week to increase resistance to allergies and reduce the body’s response to inflammation. Treatment for several months before and during allergy season each year costs about $100-$200 for herbs monthly plus about $45 per acupuncture treatment on a sliding scale for the uninsured, although some insurance companies cover acupuncture.
Nash-Galpern also consults with patients and recommends lifestyle changes including a special diet during allergy season that diminishes allergies. She says changing the diet alone reduces allergy symptoms. But the response rate is higher when adding herbs and acupuncture. She emphasizes putting a positive spin on making changes during allergy season:
“Make it fun, find new foods to eat, find something fun to do out of town for a bit of a break—turn a crisis into an opportunity!”
The homeopathic alternative
No discussion about alternative allergy therapies is complete without mentioning the practice of homeopathy, discovered by Dr. Samuel Hahnemann in the late 1700s. The advantage of homeopathic remedies is they are simple to take, inexpensive to purchase, and readily available in health stores. Remedies come in tablets, drops, and topicals, costing between $5 and $10. It is a cost effective and popular practice used all over the world, even by the Royal Family. Dr. Stephanie Wilson of the Northwest Naturopathic Medical Clinic says,
“Homeopathy is notoriously inexpensive for the medicines themselves, but finding out which one you need could be tricky.”
Wilson says individuals can learn to treat themselves with homeopathic books available for lay people and then purchase remedies. But if results are not seen quickly, Wilson recommends consulting a professional like herself for a correct diagnosis. She says,
“Homeopathy really has to fit the symptoms to fix the underlying problem.”
Homeopathy is based on the principal of similars, or, “let likes be cured by likes.” It stimulates natural defenses with small doses of what causes a problem to prevent the problem or heal a person. These similar symptoms stimulate healing.
Upon starting a homeopathic remedy, if improvement is not seen immediately, the remedy must be stopped. More is not better. Wilson explains,
“If it doesn’t work, you need to come see [a professional] and see what else is going on. I have worked with lots of people with allergies very successfully, and the expense is much, much less then conventional medicine. Treating allergies is very gratifying because people don’t have to suffer.”
To learn more about allergy therapies and to explore your own remedy path for the upcoming allergy season, you can get more information from the following websites:
The Asthma and Allergy Center in Eugene, www.aacenterpc.com
Golden Apple Healthcare at the Eugene Healing Center, www.goldenapplehealthcare.com
Healing Spirit Body Therapies in Eugene, www.healingspirit.us
Northwest Naturopathic Medical Clinic, www.natural-dr.com