On The Hunt

Appears in the March 2018 issue.

Speaking with allergist Farheen Mirza is like talking with a detective. She initiates and follows multiple lines of questioning and listens for clues that will identify the criminal. In most cases, the offense is an allergic reaction, but the perpetrator is not always easy to find.

At the ENT, Allergy and Audiology Clinic at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital, Dr. Mirza enjoys the process of uncovering patients’ allergies and finding the best path to good health. Mirza grew up in Chicago and attended Northwestern University, followed by Rush University Medical School. She completed her training in allergy and immunology with a fellowship at the University of Iowa.

Mirza first became interested in pursuing a career as an allergist because her mother is a respiratory therapist and her sister has suffered from seasonal allergies and asthma. Here, she offers insight into springtime and food allergies and intolerances.

What is the difference between colds and seasonal allergies?
There are a couple of ways to distinguish between the two. Viruses cause colds. Your body’s defense against the infection results in symptoms like a cough, stuffy nose and achiness.

Colds typically last up to ten days and they tend to produce thicker mucus. An external irritant—like pollen or ragweed—causes allergies, which are more present in the environment in the spring, late summer and fall. If a runny nose and itchy eyes last more than ten days, it is typically allergy-related. Ask yourself if your symptoms change around different environments.

What are pollen counts and how can they help me?
During spring, summer and fall, pollen from trees, weeds and grasses is carried by the wind through the environment. It is a common allergen, and many people notice an increase in symptoms when the pollen count is high. Some apps and websites can give you the numbers in your area.

If mold or pollen counts are high, people can take precautions to avoid or limit their exposure. Closing windows, staying inside, using air conditioning, taking medication ahead of time and showering can reduce allergy symptoms.

Can allergies be cured?
No, but the symptoms can be muted. Shots or pills can mitigate the response to allergies for most people.

Sometimes kids can outgrow their allergies. As children mature, their symptoms often get milder. If an allergy appears as an adult, it is unlikely to go away, but your doctor can help lessen the symptoms.

What’s the difference between a food allergy and an intolerance?
A food intolerance is typically limited to the digestive system and includes manifestations like bloating, gassiness, heartburn and diarrhea. A food allergy is an immune response and can be life-threatening.

Allergic reactions include symptoms such as hives, swelling, difficulty breathing or swallowing and anaphylaxis. At times it is hard to see the difference, so doctors gather more information through blood work and skin-prick testing.

What are some common mistakes parents make regarding their children’s food allergies?Many parents are unaware of new recommendations for children. For years the medical community thought the best prevention for peanut allergies was to avoid peanut products in the first few years of life. New research suggests that in some high-risk children, an early introduction of peanuts may be beneficial.

Children with eczema, egg allergies or a sibling with food allergies are considered high-risk for a food allergy. Parents should speak with their child’s pediatrician about the best course of action based on family history.