University of Pennsylvania Health System

Penn Health and Wellness

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Win the Battle Against Allergies

Jeffrey Millstein, MD, a primary care physician at Penn Internal Medicine Woodbury Heights, explains what “allergies” are and how you can win the battle against them this season.

It is that wonderful time of year again. The leaves are changing and the air is crisp, but unfortunately for some, the sniffling and sneezing of allergies has blurred the idyllic picture.
Jeffrey Millstein, MD

What are allergies?

Allergies – also known as “hay fever” or seasonal allergic rhinitis – is the fifth most common chronic condition in the United States. Pennsylvania and New Jersey have three allergy “seasons” the spring (when trees pollinate), the summer (when grasses release their pollen) and the fall (ragweed season).

An allergy occurs when your immune system overreacts and mistakes an ordinary substance, such as pollen, as a harmful invader. Inflammatory cells swarm to the area of contact (nose, sinuses, skin and eyes) and release antibodies, histamine and other destructive chemicals in an attempt to combat the “invader”, resulting in an allergic reaction.

How do I know if I have allergies?

Because common symptoms include runny nose, sneezing along with itchy and watery eyes. It can be difficult to distinguish allergies from an upper respiratory infection. There are, however, some clues to help determine what you are suffering from. Allergies can cause fatigue and misery from congestion to irritation of the respiratory tract, but will usually not make one feel truly “ill.” A fever, green or yellow mucous, deep cough or shortness of breath are indicative of infection and should prompt a call or visit to your primary care provider.

Allergies typically begin in childhood or adolescence, but they can develop at any time thereafter. While specific allergies are not directly inherited, your risk of developing allergies is increased if family members are affected.

Are there ways to fight allergies?

Below are some tips to help you get through the sneezing season more comfortably:

Avoid the thing you’re allergic to. Monitor pollen counts in your area and avoid outdoor activity when the count is especially high. The National Allergy Bureau or local weather stations provide accurate, accessible pollen count information. Keeping windows closed, and showering after coming indoors may also help prevent symptoms.

Try over-the-counter medications. Antihistamines are the most common of these remedies. Newer types, like certrizine, fexofenadine and loratadine are effective and are much less sedating than ones of the past. Nasal steroids, mast cell inhibitors and montelukast are other prescription options for refractory symptoms. A number of eye drops are available as well, specifically to treat itchy and watery eyes. Talk to your primary care provider to discuss what options would be best for you.

Natural remedies have shown efficacy for treating allergies. A few natural or homeopathic remedies have been shown to be effective, though some are outside the FDA’s purview: the European herb butterbur has shown some efficacy in clinical studies, similar to antihistamines and migraine relief medicine; salt water nasal spray can help wash out pollen from the nose and sinuses and, some cases, acupuncture can be helpful.

When symptoms do not respond to these interventions, as expected, and symptoms are severe or persistent, it may be time to see an allergist. They can perform skin and serologic testing for specific allergens and offer immunotherapy (allergy shots) when appropriate. Immunotherapy is based on the concept that the immune system can be desensitized to substances that trigger allergies. Injections can potentially lead to a lasting solution to allergy symptoms.

Allergies can be very annoying and sometimes disabling, but many effective options for prevention and treatment are available.

Establishing or maintaining a good rapport with your primary care provider or allergist will most likely lead to a satisfactory solution to this common problem.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Halloween Safety Tips for Parents

Halloween is fast approaching. Soon, the streets will be filled with ghosts, goblins, princesses and cowboys. To help make this year's festivities a trick-free treat, follow these simple safety tips:

For the Young Ones

Trick or Treat Tips for Parents
  • Spotted in the dark. Bright-colored costumes are more likely to be seen after dark. Add reflective tape to your child’s costume or to the trick-or-treat bag so you and cars can keep an eye out. 
  • See and breathe easy. If the costume has wigs or beards, make sure they don’t cover your child’s eyes, noses, or mouths. Same goes for wearing a mask.
  • Toxic makeup. Consider using nontoxic face paint or makeup. Test the face paint or makeup on your child's arm or hand before applying; ensuring the paint doesn't irritate the skin.
  • Don’t trip. Try to avoid oversized and high-heeled shoes and costumes that have long fabric that can cause children to trip.
  • Home safe. Check all treats to make sure they are sealed. Throw out any candy with holes in the packages, spoiled items and any homemade foods from strangers.

For Parents with Older Kids

  • Be aware. If your child is trick-or-treating on their own, find out the route they'll be taking.
  • Safer in groups. Make sure they go in a group and stress that they stay together.
  • Welcome in. Advise them to only go to houses with porch lights on and walk on sidewalks on lit streets. 
  • Don’t play with fire. Steer clear from candles and other flames. 
  • Light it up. Equip your child with a flashlight with new batteries.
Finally, make sure trick-or-treaters will be safe when visiting your home as well. Remove anything that could cause kids to trip or fall on your walkway or lawn. Double check to see if the lights are on outside your house and light the walkway to your door, if possible.

Have a safe and fun Halloween! To help get started, download our Halloween Safety Tips for Parents.
click here to enlarge and download.

Interested in learning more helpful health tips?

Friday, September 25, 2015

Tips To Stay Active This Fall

It seems as though everything is just a bit easier during the summer. People tend to be a little more laid back at work, there are less people on the road because many are on vacation and, with the added sunlight and warm temperatures, being active seems to be much less of a hassle.

Penn Medicine Fall Tips to Stay Active
Autumn, though, is here. Say goodbye to the warm temperatures and hello to shorter days and cooler weather. Perhaps it’s the fewer hours of sunlight, but this time of the year seems to be when many go into hibernation and ease up on their active summer lifestyles.

This doesn’t have to be the case as there are many fun things to do to stay fit during the cooler months.

“The change of seasons is a good time to focus on health and wellness goals," said Ngozi Onuoha, MD, FACP, of Penn Internal Medicine Mayfair. "Autumn is a great season to walk. Walking is a great form of exercise that does not require much preparation."

Here are some other tips to keep you moving and feeling healthy this fall.
  • Make exercise fun: Autumn is synonymous with harvest season. What better way to stay active than to go pumpkin or apple picking with your family or friends? For the younger ones (or those simply young at heart, take part in physical activities such as corn mazes and haunted trails.
  • Sign up for a holiday run: Fall is the season in which many fun runs and events occur. Participate in Halloween runs, turkey trots, reindeer romps, etc. Setting a specific goal, such as a race to train for, increases adherence to an exercise program. Signing up with friends or family will motivate you even more.
  • Enjoy the colors: Grab a friend, and find a local park that has great trails to walk, run, or ride a bike on.
  • Go to a farmer’s market: Many of the root vegetables are in season and are inexpensive. Grab some apples while you’re at it as they’re rich in antioxidants and flavanoids, both of which can reduce cholesterol.
  • Take advantage of the cooler weather: Play catch, walk the dog, get a group of friends together to play ultimate Frisbee or touch football.
  •  Make fall chores fun: Raking your lawn can be a real workout. Have fun with it (perhaps by jumping in the leaves??).
Interested in learning more helpful health tips?

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Is it Fall Allergies or a Cold?

Fall Allergies or a Cold?
The cooler temperatures have arrived and you aren’t feeling too well. You can’t stop sneezing, sniffing and coughing?

So, what’s the deal? Is it allergies? Are you sick? Should you be scheduling an appointment with your doctor?

Before picking up the phone, it’s important to know the difference between the two. The common cold is typically the result of a viral respiratory tract infection, but an allergy is a hypersensitivity disorder when a person’s immune system reacts to normally harmless substances in the environment.

“You should make an appointment to see your doctor for any cold symptoms that last more than 1-2 weeks, or for any persistent allergy symptoms that do not respond to over-the-counter antihistamines,” said Lauren Strohm, DO, of Penn Medicine Valley Forge.

Contrary to what many think, spring is not the only allergy-prone season. As the temperatures begin to dip, many experience the effects of allergies similar to how they would in the spring.

Ragweed is the biggest culprit as it can travel hundreds of miles in the wind. While the yellow-flowering weed usually starts releasing pollen in August, it can last well into September and October. Nearly three-quarters of people who are allergic to spring plants are also allergic to ragweed.

Another fall trigger is mold. Many think of mold growing in their basement or bathroom, but mold spores also love outdoor wet spots such as piles of damp leaves.

Dust mites tend to get overlooked this time of the year, but can be allergy trigger for many. Although they are more common during the humid summer months, they can get mixed into the air when the individuals begin to use their heat.

Tips to Tell the Difference 

  • Do you have a fever? If yes, you are dealing with something more than allergies. A fever is never a feature of an allergy.
  • Itchiness and watery eyes? Although not always the case, this usually points to an allergy rather than a cold.
  • A cold is usually self limiting (symptoms cease in a predictable manner), but an allergy needs interventions and treatment.
  • Are others around you sick? A cold is contagious, while an allergy is not.
  • How long have you not been feeling yourself? Colds can last a long time, usually between 1-3 weeks. Allergies, though, can stick around for a few days or months if an individual is continuously exposed to the allergen.
  • When did the symptoms start? Symptoms of a cold take a few days to develop after the viral infection, but allergic symptoms begin immediately after the exposure.
Need to see a physician?
Schedule an appointment today.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Create Healthy Habits Through Strength in Numbers

R. Aimee Ando, DO, a family medicine physician at Penn Family Medicine University City, discusses how a “partner in health” can help you achieve your goals.

Healthy Habits Through Strength in NumbersWorking in primary care, I have the privilege of learning a person’s most intimate hopes and challenges on a daily basis. Conversations with my patients often revolve around healthy lifestyle changes - eating sensible portions and more fruits and vegetables, exercising, quitting smoking - and the seemingly insurmountable barriers to achieving such goals.

I believe there is a better way to tackle these challenges. And that is by not doing it alone. Changing habits often works best when done with someone else, whether it be your spouse or significant other, a workout “buddy,” or with a group of like-minded individuals.

These four tips will help you and your partner get on the road to good health:
  • No more excuses: We are social beings and at our core do not want to let others down. We often thrive on the support that a “partner in health” can provide. Having someone to whom one feels accountable keeps us motivated and committed.
  • Choose wisely: Find someone who you like and who has an upbeat attitude. If you are single or if your spouse/significant other is not up for the challenge, broaden your scope. Look to friends or work colleagues with similar exercise schedules to go walk the neighborhood or hit the gym. Working out together can push you to keep moving and dig deeper than when solo. A little healthy competition can go a long way! And don’t give up hope on that spouse at home still sitting on the couch. The positive changes that you make in your own life often inspire those closest to you.
  • Create fun incentives: Establishing rewards for your hard work can be a great motivator. If you are committed to quit smoking with your partner, make a separate fund with the money saved from cigarettes and use the funds for a getaway or something special for the house. The reward can even be psychological: sign up and train for a 5K run/walk a few months ahead and set a schedule that you both will stick to. Setting tangible markers of success helps you to keep your eye on the prize.
  • Make it fit your reality: What works for some does not always work for others. As parents of two very young children, my husband and I rarely have time to do anything together, much less go off to the gym. Nonetheless, we block off time and space during the week when each of us gets to have her/his own time to be active while the other one watches the kids. And we don’t let the other one back out of it either. It can be so “easy” to make excuses, but when you make your own health a priority, those you love may make their health a priority too!
You never have to go it alone. We have learned time and again that when we partner with people who are more active, think positively, and eat well, we are more likely to do the same. So go ahead and be contagious!

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