Here's what I am allergic to: hickory pollen, pecan pollen, ragweed, Bermuda grass, mold, dust mites, cockroaches, dogs, cats, feathers. (Note: this is not a complete list.)
Here's how I deal with my allergies, given that pollen is unavoidable, I own a dog and a cat, and I refuse to sleep on anything that is not a down pillow: I take Claritin. Every day. For over a decade now.
I am aware this is not the most efficient way to address my allergies. I once started a regime of allergy shots, but after about two years I lost my health insurance for a while and couldn't afford to keep up. I'm insured now, but I've gotten so used to my sniffles that I haven't even thought about doing something about them.
With Knoxville once again being named the worst city for spring allergy sufferers by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, I decided it was time to find out what kind of options are here in town to treat allergies. It turns out there are a lot, and many of them don't require shots. But what works for one person may not work for another, so you're best advised to consult your primary care physician before jumping head first into any new treatment.
Dr. Bob Overholt is well known in Knoxville due to his television show, but his medical speciality is treating allergies. He has grown the Allergy, Asthma & Sinus Center to 20 locations in East Tennessee and Kentucky, so he knows what he's talking about when he talks about allergies.
Overholt says 30 percent of the population has some kind of allergy, and 15 to 19 percent of people suffer from spring allergies. He thinks Knoxville's reputation as the worst place in the country for allergies is an accurate one, and the problem can cause general fatigue and malaise in addition to congestion and sneezing.
As you might suspect, Overholt says that a medical treatment plan for chronic allergy sufferers is the best option. He says avoidance is the best policy in general, but it's hard to avoid pollen, even if you're dedicated enough to spend all the gorgeous spring days inside with your windows closed and the air conditioner running in a freshly vacuumed house. While he admits that antihistamines and decongestants can help, he recommends prescription internasal steroids (like Flonase and Nasonex) as a better alternative with less side effects.
"All of these help symptoms, but they do nothing to solve the problem," Overholt says. The only permanent solution to solve allergies, he says, is allergy desensitizing injections—weekly for the first year, then biweekly, then every three weeks, and so on for around four years. Each time, the patient is injected with a small amount of the substances he or she is allergic to so as to eventually build up immunity to the allergens.
"It is very difficult, and it is inconvenient," Overholt says. "But there are several studies that show the expense actually decreases, since you're no longer spending money on medicine and the like."
Overholt says he's skeptical of alternative treatments. "They don't really alter the immune response. It's be nice if they could … but there've been no real studies," he says.
Jodie Manross begs to differ with Overholt. Manross first started seeing an acupuncturist in the late 1990s because she had bad allergies. She was so impressed with the results that she decided to become an acupuncturist herself. After three years of training in New York, she's recently opened her own practice in Bearden.
"It's a natural way to boost your immune system," Manross says. "People I see with a lot of congestion clear up during treatment. … It can also make you less sensitive to triggers like dust, mold, and pollen."
Manross uses tiny needles to stimulate certain acupuncture points, mainly on the lower legs and arms, which she says allows the body to balance itself.
"It's clearing up the symptoms but it's also getting to the root of what's causing you to have allergies," Manross says.
She offers to give me a treatment session so I can see for myself, although she cautions that most people need three to five sessions, each a week apart, for there to be a real difference. After half an hour of resting with needles poking out of my body and magnets and gold and copper rings on my sinuses, I feel more relaxed than anything else. My sinuses are clearer, however, and they remain so the next morning. But two days later, I'm back on Claritin.
"It's going to make you less sensitive to your triggers, but it's not going to make your allergies go away," Manross says, basically telling me that as long as I have a cat in my house, I'm unlikely to fully benefit from the treatments.
Hypnosis has become another trendy natural remedy for treating allergies, promoted by no less of an authority than Dr. Andrew Weil. But no hypnotist in the Knoxville area has yet treated patients for allergies—I checked. However, Dr. Ron Mottern of the Knoxville Center for Clinical Hypnosis says that hypnosis treatment for allergies would be similar to the treatment he offers for chronic pain and other medical issues.
"Any time you're engaging in hypnosis, you're boosting your immune system," Mottern says. He explains that as you relax in a hypnotic state, the oxygen in your system increases from your deep breathing, leading to less constricted sinuses. "When we get tense, our immune system starts to degrade."
Mottern also cautions that hypnotherapy is nothing like what you've seen on TV, and that you remain awake during the process. "It's not magic. I can't make you do anything you don't want to do. … It's a state of focused concentration," he says.
He suggests I try to treat my allergies using self-hypnosis. For the first week, I am to repeat the phrase "Every day, in every way, I'm getting better and better" 10 times as I fall asleep at night. The next week I continue this while adding two 15-minute meditations each day while I visualize what I want to come about. During the third week I will write on a strip of paper exactly what I want to happen and read the statement once every hour.
"I would visualize those air tubes expanding, perhaps," Mottern says. "Ultimately the body's going to have a response [to allergens], you're just changing what that response is. For some people it'll go away completely, for others they'll just see some improvement. Thoughts cause changes in the brain."
I don't have three weeks before this story is due to try to free myself of allergies. But I start the self-hypnosis process anyway. My sinuses remain stuffy, but I do fall asleep much faster.
Mottern's office is located at Rhama: The Center for Healing Arts in West Knoxville, as is that of Dr. Bob Eklund, who gave up a practice in traditional medicine to focus on homeopathy.
Although a lot of things are nowadays referred to as homeopathic remedies, homeopathy is not at all the same thing as natural or herbal medicine. What it is is the treatment of disease by minute doses of natural substances that in a healthy person would produce symptoms of disease—and it works well for allergies, Ecklund says, although it involves treatment for the whole person.
"Allergies are generally a chronic problem, so it's hard to treat them acutely," Eklund says.
Any homeopathic remedies Ecklund would prescribe would depend completely on the patient, he says, although he might suggest something like Allium cepa (red onion) to treat runny eyes and a runny nose. Patients should expect a couple of follow-up visits to make sure their remedies are working, although they can expect to feel better within a dose or three—all of which are free of side effects, Ecklund says.
"When you feel better, that's all you feel. You don't feel anything else," Eklund says.
The Salt Spa
Will Foster opened a salt spa in his Traditional Health Clinic in Bearden last summer, but it's just now, in allergy season, that business has really started to boom.
"Salt is antibacterial, anti-fungal, anti-viral, and it dissolves mucus," Foster says. "It's very suitable for treating allergies and asthma."
The salt spa is a room in which the walls are encrusted with salt, which also covers the floor. You sit in a beach chair for 45 minutes and breathe in a constant flow of dry, aerosolized, negatively charged tiny salt particles—it's like breathing in the salt air at the beach. Foster says the negative ionization helps to relax the nervous system and detoxify the body, and the minute particles allow the salt to reach the smallest parts of the lungs.
"Salt is an anti-inflammatory," Foster says. "Immune reactions are inflammatory in nature, so salt can help reduce inflammation, open airways and sinuses and can also help tone the airways."
Foster explains that salt therapy has long been popular in the Middle East, Europe, and Russia, but it's only just now becoming known in the United States—his salt spa is the first of its kind in Tennessee. Foster says for the salt spa to fully help with allergies, one needs daily treatments for a week or two, followed up with maintenance visits every week.
My session in the salt spa is indeed relaxing. I sit and read a magazine while soothing New Age music plays on the speakers as I breathe in the salty air. When I walk outside I can breathe more deeply than I have in weeks. The next morning I'm as congested as usual (though I haven't followed Foster's recommendation of multiple treatments).
There are other types of treatments that ostensibly help allergies, including laser treatments, chiropractic treatments, deep-tissue massage, and herbal supplements. Proponents of alternative medicine cite studies to back up their work, while proponents of Western medicine cite studies that say anything else is bunk. What's important is to do your research and make sure you trust your provider before starting any therapies, medical or not.
And just like everyone's allergies are unique to that person, what works for one person may not work for another, and most alternative therapies require repeated visits before lasting results can be seen. As Manross told me, "The important thing is to find the modality that works for you."
My modality, for now, will continue to be Claritin. And I'll continue to leave my windows open and sleep with my cat and suffer the consequences. Some things are more important than clear sinuses.
Correction: We misspelled Dr. Bob Eklund's last name with an extraneous "c."