by Lisa Milbrand

Nothing to Sneeze At

Dealing with dander can be a matter of life and death

Dogs may qualify as man’s best friend, but they won’t do you any favors if you’re among the estimated 10 percent of Americans who have animal-related allergies. That means your allergic antibodies—aka immunoglobulin E—have declared pet dander and saliva as enemies of the state. The casualty list in this epic, microscopic battle being waged within your body includes a runny nose, scratchy throat, watery eyes, itchy hives and, in the most serious cases, a potentially lifethreatening asthma attack. “Pet dander can activate cells in the immune system,” confirms Samuel D. Kahnowitz, MD, FCCP, FACP, Chief of Pulmonary Medicine and Medical Director of Respiratory Therapy at Trinitas Regional Medical Center. “The body then makes inflammatory substances that constrict the muscles around the airway, and cause swelling on the inside of the airways, making it harder to breathe.” Reactions to pet allergies account for an increasing number of doctor and emergency room visits in this country, so the medical community is taking this trend seriously. To a layman, at least, the obvious question is, “Has pet dander somehow gotten ‘worse’ or are people becoming more sensitive to it?” Actually the same question could be asked about our food and environment—allergies in general seem to be more prevalent, and more serious, than ever. It turns out that we may be the problem. Indeed studies suggest that our country’s obsession with cleanliness may be to blame for creating hypersensitive immune systems, which now react to harmless things around us. “Our environment has improved, so we don’t have to worry about fighting off dangerous parasites,” explains Richard J. Bukosky, MD, an allergist in Linden. “The allergic antibody doesn’t have a whole lot to do. It starts to ‘pick’ on things that we’re exposed to in the environment that are completely harmless.” While there is still no permanent cure for pet allergies, there are plenty of options available for minimizing their effects on your life—and many of them don’t require finding a new home for Fluffy or Fido: Minimize exposure to pets. The less exposure to the offending pet, the better. Opting to find a new home for your pet may help in the long run, though it can take up to 20 weeks after the pet leaves before the allergen levels really dissipate. If your dog or cat is here to stay, make sure to keep it out of your bedroom—the place where you spend most of your time—and wash your hands thoroughly after you’ve touched your pet. Weekly bathing or grooming (done by someone other than the person with the allergies) may also help keep allergens at bay. Keep it clean. Daily vacuuming and washing-down of surfaces can help clear some of the allergens—especially if you use a vacuum with a HEPA filter that can trap the tiny particles. Removing carpeting, drapery, stuffed toys and other soft fabrics can help reduce the number of places where pet dander can become trapped. “I really push for them to allergy-proof the bedroom—get rid of the carpeting and the animals, get a dehumidifier and a HEPA filter, avoid down comforters and get allergy-proofing casing for the pillows and mattresses,” Dr. Bukosky says. Consider that it might not be your pet. Even if allergy testing turns up an allergic reaction, it may not actually be your animal that’s causing the wheezing. “Dogs roam around, and it might not be the dog himself—it may be an irritant he’s picking up outside, like wood chips or rag weed,” says Dr. Kahnowitz. Take antihistamines. Newer over-the-counter formulations, like Zyrtec and Claritin, are more potent and less likely to cause drowsiness and other unpleasant side effects. Try a more serious approach. Doctors have become more aggressive in treating allergies, often including steroids in the treatment plan. “We’re pushing steroids more,” Dr. Bukosky says. “We used to use a montelukast (Singulair) a lot, but we’ve started to use inhaled steroids more—for nasal allergies, internasal steroids are a good option.” Of course, pet allergies can also be treated with a program of allergy immunizations. “We push for immunizations, which make it less likely that you’ll develop asthma,” says Dr. Bukosky. The regimens generally start with weekly shots, then as the treatment progresses, patients can go longer and longer between injections. Finally, there’s the do-nothing approach. These are the people who claim they have built an immunity to their animal. Is this really possible? The answer is yes…and no. Dr. Bukosky warns that what these pet owners believe to be happening may not actually be the case. “With daily exposure to the pet, a person with allergies may be having mild allergy-like attacks each day that use up the IgE antibody—just not enough to cause symptoms,” he says. “Then the child goes off to college, or is away from the pet for a long vacation, and has an asthma attack. So you may become ‘used to’ your pet, but you have to be in constant contact with it to avoid a serious reaction.”