If spring makes you feel like several of the seven dwarfs (Sneezy, Dopey, Grumpy), you probably are one of the 15 million Americans who suffer from seasonal allergies.
Like most hay fever sufferers, you have probably tried at least one of the antihistamine products that line the shelves of your local supermarket. But what you might not know, says Dr. Sheldon Spector, is that all over-the-counter antihistamines can dangerously impair your reaction time and your coordination - even if they don't make you feel drowsy.Spector, clinical professor of medicine at UCLA, was in Salt Lake City to conduct an "allergies and work performance" seminar for employees of US WEST.
Although the seminar included general information about allergies, the underlying theme centered on the hidden dangers of over-the-counter, sedative-containing antihistamines. The seminar was sponsored by Marion Merrell Dow, makers of Seldane, a non-sedative prescription antihistamine.
Sedative antihistamines, which include all over-the-counter brands according to Spector, cause not only drowsiness but also "subtle impairment that isn't appreciated."
These "unfelt side effects" include reduced reaction times, decreased motor coordination and impaired judgment. That's why the medications are accompanied by warnings not to drive or operate heavy machinery while using the drugs, noted Spector.
He added that a recent Gallup survey revealed that 61 percent of those respondents who were aware of warnings against driving while using antihistamines drove anyway.
The key ingredient in over-the-counter antihistamines - diphenhydramenine - can also be found in most over-the-counter sleeping pills.
The side effects of these drugs can be exacerbated if used simultaneously with other medications or with alcohol, Spector added.
Many people, he said, assume over-the-counter allergy medications are safe because they can find them in their supermarket, "next to the Hershey's kisses."
Long-acting steroids, sometimes prescribed for allergy sufferers, can also be dangerous, causing irreversible cataracts and suppression of the adrenal gland, he said.
"Just because something is effective, that doesn't mean it's safe," added Salt Lake allergy specialist Edwin Bronsky, who also participated in the seminar. (For example, throwing yourself in front of a truck would put an end to your hay fever, Bronsky noted.)
According to Bronsky and Spector, the long-term use of non-sedative prescription antihistamines is safe.
Utah's warm, dry, early spring this year has meant an early, prolific hay fever season. Because there has been little rain, pollens have been able to float through the air with the greatest of ease.
"Hay," of course, is hardly an accurate description of the culprits that cause allergies during the spring. Trees are the main problem now, including box elder, maple, cottonwood, birch, linden and ash.