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Staying Active and in Control Despite Their Allergies

Meet four people with allergies who combine medication, alternative therapies, and the right attitude to maintain control over their lives.
By Don Fernandez
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

For people who have allergies, the challenges of remaining physically active can easily outweigh the benefits to their health and mental well-being. Running, swimming, and even gardening -- how enjoyable can these activities be when just taking a breath is so exhausting?

But having seasonal allergies doesn't mean you have to become a shut-in. Nor does it mean, even in environments where pollen and other irritants are plentiful, that you have to give up exercise. "Allergies are not a disability,” says Clifford Bassett, MD. Bassett, an allergist/immunologist, is the medical director of Allergy and Asthma Care of New York. “With the wonderful ways we have for diagnosing and treating allergies and asthma,” he says, “people can do quite well.” Bassett tells WebMD he sees many people who participate in sports at all levels. “It's a disease you can conquer and control," he says.

Addressing Health Challenges From Allergies

Tens of millions of Americans face the challenges of living an active lifestyle with allergies every day. And the number continues to grow. According to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology, a nationwide survey found that more than half the citizens in the U.S. tested positive to one or more allergens. Allergic disease is the fifth leading chronic disease among all ages in this country. And it costs billions each year in health care spending and lost productivity.

Bassett recommends medical testing to reveal any potential allergies an individual might have. He also says it’s important to understand the impact a person's environment and lifestyle choices can have on allergies. Bassett generally prescribes traditional medication to provide relief from allergy symptoms. But, he says, there are also other approaches that can benefit people with allergies.

Bassett tells WebMD that stress is a common problem for anyone with a chronic health condition. And, he says, using techniques such as yoga, breathing exercises, and diet to reduce stress can be very beneficial.

WebMD recently talked with a number of very active people who also have allergies. We wanted to find out what they did to keep their allergies from keeping them down. What we found is most of them relied on a mix of conventional medication, complementary and alternative therapies, and ingenuity to not only cope with their allergies, but to also physically thrive. Here are their stories.

Liz Erk: Runner, Rower, Skater

Liz Erk never believed she was strong enough, fast enough, or tough enough. A runner in her youth, she would quickly run out of breath, wheezing and panting for air. The same thing happened when she joined the rowing team at Northwestern University.

"I used to beat myself up," says Erk, 31, of Boston. "I just thought I was out of shape."

Fitness wasn't the problem. The same allergies that caused Erk to feel as if she was suffocating when she was near a cat also affected her athletic performance. Her whole family, in fact, is challenged by a bevy of allergens: cats, trees -- particularly pine -- dust, and pollution. "I have memories of visiting relatives with cats and we'd have to time the visits," she says. "As I got to be 10 years old, I couldn't breathe around cats. It was not a lot of fun."

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