A dog is man's best friend — that is, unless the man is allergic to his dog.
Pet allergies are common in the United States. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, 15 to 30 percent of all Americans are affected. Although allergies to cats are around twice as common, allergic reactions to dogs tend to be more severe. This is especially the case in those with asthma. Keep reading to learn about lifestyle changes and medications that can help treat your dog allergies.
Dogs secrete proteins that end up in their dander (dead skin), saliva, and urine. An allergic reaction occurs when a sensitive person's immune system reacts abnormally to the usually harmless proteins. Different breeds produce different dander, so it’s possible to be more allergic to some dogs than others.
The allergen eventually finds its way into the animal's fur. From there, it collects in carpets, on clothing, on walls, and between couch cushions. The pet hair itself is not an allergen, but the hair can hold dust and dander. Pet dander can remain airborne for long periods of time as well. It can eventually find its way into your eyes or lungs.
The symptoms of a dog allergy may range from mild to severe. Symptoms may not appear for several days after exposure in people with low sensitivity.
Some clues you may be allergic to dogs include:
- swelling and itching in the membranes of the nose or around the eyes
- redness of the skin after being licked by a dog
- coughing, shortness of breath, or wheezing within 15 to 30 minutes of exposure to allergens
- rash on the face, neck, or chest
- a severe asthma attack (in someone with asthma)
Children with dog allergies will often develop eczema in addition to the above symptoms. Eczema is a painful inflammation of the skin.
People used to believe that exposing a newborn to the family dog could cause a child to develop a pet allergy. Thankfully for dog owners, the opposite appears to be true. Several studies in the past few years — including one published in the Journal of the British Society for Allergy and Clinical Immunology — have found that exposing a baby to a pet doesn’t increase the risk of developing allergies or asthma and may actually protect the child from developing them in the future.
The only surefire way to get rid of a pet allergy is to remove the pet from your home. There are, however, ways to minimize your exposure to allergens and lessen your symptoms if you don’t want to part with Fluffy.
Here are some medications and treatments that can help you manage allergies and asthma:
- Antihistamines (over-the-counter medications such as Benadryl, Claritin, Allegra and Clarinex OTC) can help relieve itching, sneezing, and runny nose.
- Nasal corticosteroids such as Flonase (now available over the counter) or Nasonex may reduce inflammation and control symptoms.
- Cromolyn sodium is an over-the-counter nasal spray that may help reduce symptoms, especially if it is used before they develop.
- Decongestants make it easier to breathe by shrinking swollen tissues in the nasal passage (either oral or nasal).
- Allergy shots (immunotherapy) expose you to the animal protein (allergen) that is causing the reaction and help your body become less sensitive, reducing symptoms. Shots are given by an allergist and are often used in more severe cases for long-term treatment.
- Leukotriene modifiers, such as the prescription tablet Singulair, may be recommended if you can’t tolerate nasal antihistamines or corticosteroids. Singulair is now available in generic form.
Some people with dog allergies may find that a saline (salt water) rinse daily to clear nasal passages of allergens can help. A "nasal lavage" can control symptoms such as congestion and postnasal drip.
Over-the-counter saline sprays and nasal lavage kits are readily available. You can also make your own by mixing 1/8 teaspoon of table salt with distilled water.
There are several things dog owners can do around the home to reduce allergens. They include:
- setting up dog-free zones (certain rooms, such as a bedroom, where the dog is not allowed)
- bathing the dog weekly (done by a non-allergic person)
- removing carpeting, upholstered furniture, horizontal blinds, curtains, and any other items that may attract dander
- using high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) air purifiers to reduce airborne allergens in the home
- keeping the dog outside (only in certain climates and under humane conditions)
Many of the lifestyle changes and allergy medications listed above can help you to reduce uncomfortable symptoms if you love dogs and don’t want to give up being around them. An allergist can perform tests and tell you how severe your dog allergy is and what types of treatments can help. Talk to your doctor about your allergy and your treatment options.