Springtime Can Spell Trouble for Allergy Sufferers

By ALPA Staff

Springtime brings renewed plant growth and, with it, aggravating cold-like symptoms for the millions who suffer from seasonal allergies like hay fever or allergic rhinitis. Warmer weather and increased periods of sunshine help promote the creation of pollen, a powdery generative substance produced by trees, flowers, and grasses. In addition to pollen, mold spores are also a common source of spring allergies.

In response to these miniscule particles in the air, the body’s immune system releases chemicals from certain blood cells and tissues called histamines. These chemicals cause mucus membranes to swell and produce clear fluids near the locations where allergens make contact.

Consequently, springtime allergy sufferers often experience

  • nasal congestion,
  • sneezing and runny nose,
  • coughing,
  • watery eyes, and
  • mouth or throat irritation.

The Aviation Medicine Advisory Service (AMAS), ALPA’s Aeromedical Office, reports that up to 40 million Americans suffer from seasonal allergies each year, as do nearly 20 to 30 percent of all Canadians. “It’s like having a bad cold that’s persistent,” said Dr. Susan Waserman, a noted allergist and professor at McMaster University. “You don’t have a fever and aches, but you feel congested and sneezy. It interferes with your sleep, concentration, and performance, so in many ways it affects your quality of life.”

However, there are measures you can take to limit these symptoms and keep flying. To reduce your exposure to these triggers and address the presence of allergens while outdoors,

  • wear sunglasses and a hat.
  • wear an N95-rated mask, gloves, and sunglasses or goggles when performing yard work.
  • avoid going outside during peak pollen periods. Pollen levels are usually at their height around sunrise and sunset. This allergen is also more noticeable on warm, breezy days.
  • set the air conditioner in your car to the “recirculate air” setting when driving.

After being outside,

  • keep your windows closed.
  • remove your shoes before entering your home.
  • take a shower and shampoo your hair before bed.
  • change your clothes once inside.
  • use a nasal rinse to remove inhaled pollen in your nose and sinuses.
  • wash your bed linens in hot, soapy water once a week.
  • dry your laundry using a clothes dryer or an indoor rack versus an outdoor clothesline.
  • use a towel to remove pollen from pets once indoors.

If symptoms persist, there are a variety of nonprescription medications available. However, make sure you review and adhere to all regulatory and medical guidelines before stepping onto the flight deck while using these drugs.

ALPA’s Aeromedical Office reports that U.S. airline pilots must identify any hay fever medication they’ve taken on FAA Form 8500-8, Block 17 (“Medications”). While Canadian pilots aren’t required to report nonsedating medications for hay fever symptoms, they’re encouraged to consult with their civil aviation medical examiners before attempting to use stronger medications while on duty.

AMAS notes that available, over-the-counter (OTC) drugs including nonsedating oral antihistamines like Claritin, Clarinex, and Allegra are approved for use by the FAA. The “D” versions of these medications, which include the presence of decongestants, are also permitted. In addition, decongestants containing pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) may be used if pilots are able to adequately clear their ears before flying.

OTC nasal steroid sprays like Flonase, Nasacort, and Rhinocort can be used if applied before the onset of spring and the medication is regularly applied for the duration of the season. However, keep in mind that any drugs with sedating side effects are not approved. For example, antihistamines like chlorpheniramine (Clortrimaton, CTM) and diphenhydramine (Benadryl) can make you drowsy and lethargic and are prohibited. Zyrtec (Cetirizine) is also banned.

Your continued alertness and ability to concentrate are critical when flying the line. For this reason, it’s recommended that you try any approved medication at home first to see how your body responds before using it while on the flight deck.

Seasonal Allergies

For more information about seasonal allergies like hay fever and the use of associated medications, contact the Aviation Medicine Advisory Service (AMAS), ALPA’s Aeromedical Office. Call 303-341-4435, Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. mountain time, and speak with a physician. Also, be sure to check out “Allergies” in the AMAS medical article library.

This article was originally published in the April 2023 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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