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.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on December 18, 2008
From the WebMD Archives

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."

As she grew into adulthood, her passion for activity was often curtailed by unpleasant allergy symptoms that made athletics and even socializing a challenge. Instead of retreating indoors, though, she decided to tackle the problem head on.

First came the allergy medication, which helped ease her difficulty with breathing and relieve her asthma symptoms. Next, she turned to acupuncture, which provided more relief. Soon she noticed a marked improvement. The only exception was when the foliage changed each fall and spring.

She still had a problem with cats, but then ironically fell in love with a kitten named Mia. A doctor told her to get rid of the furry feline, but she refused. Then a friend gave her some encouraging advice: Making a kitten part of your home, her friend said, might allow your system to develop immunity to the allergens as the cat matures.

So she did it, and it worked -- perhaps too well, she chuckles. Erk now owns 10 cats and volunteers at a cat shelter in her spare time. She even upgraded to a three-bedroom home specifically so her cats would have room to roam. An activity that she once considered "virtual suicide" has now become an integral part of her life and lifestyle. No more wheezing. Her eyes no longer swell shut when she hears a "meow" and the cat nuzzles her. She even credits fighting against her cat allergy with improving her social life. She no longer shies away from visiting friends who have pets.

Meanwhile, Erk's found a new athletic passion. Two years ago, she learned how to skate and started to play ice hockey. That’s brought back her inner competitor. "For my level, I'm pretty fast," Erk says. "And it's all because I have the stamina for it."

Fighting back against the irritants that caused her such grief has altered Erk's life both mentally and physically. "My life is completely different," she says. "Tackling my allergens head on made a total difference for me. I'm in the best shape of my life."

Fred Coe: Keeping Allergies Off the Court

Fred Coe spent part of the fifth grade encased in plastic. Having had asthma from the time he was very young, Coe developed double pneumonia. It was so severe that he was placed in an oxygen tent. He didn’t return to school until his sixth grade class had already begun.

Coe’s list of allergic substances – both indoors and out -- contains all the typical culprits: dander, dust, pollen, and other airborne allergens. Sauerkraut is another trigger, but he admits it’s one that isn’t quite as challenging to avoid.

Despite spending an entire winter of his life without leaving his home, Coe is now determined to make his allergies an annoyance rather than a crippling condition.

"I've always been real active -- hyperactive, actually," says Coe, who is now 61 and living in Knoxville, Tenn. But, he says, as a youth growing up in Chattanooga, without the allergy medications and types of treatment available now, it was a struggle. Add to the mix of challenges two parents who each smoked three packs of Lucky Strikes per day and the chances for drawing an easy breath got slimmer and slimmer.

But Coe, whose desire to be active couldn’t be quelled, has embraced modern medical perspectives on how to face down his allergies. He says he often wakes up sneezing. When he does, he immediately takes his over-the-counter allergy medication. He has an inhaler in case breathing becomes too difficult. For more than a decade, he received injections each month to combat allergens.

These measures are all necessary because the asphalt calls. Coe is an avid walker and an avid basketball player. Last month, he logged 120 miles trekking around Knoxville. Add to that his penchant for yard work and he hardly seems like a man once cocooned because of his allergies.

Now enjoying his retirement, Coe says his lifestyle can be attributed to careful monitoring, healthy behaviors, and awareness. "I try not to let [allergies] control my life," Coe says. "Sometimes I have to be careful. My wife usually rakes the leaves. There's a lot of dust involved so I don't try to do that." He says avoiding situations that could cause his symptoms to flare is key. Cold weather, for instance, sets him off. So he bundles up when there's a chill. He's never smoked, and he avoids people who do. He also keeps a healthy distance from his wife's cats. They cause his eyes to run and sneezes to erupt.

Despite all of these precautions, Coe says he could take even more measures to make his environment more suited for an allergy sufferer. But until his condition proves to be more problematic, he'll likely be found on the court or making the rounds during one of his walks.

"A lot of people are a lot more careful than I am,” he says. ”And I probably should be. But I'm not going to let it control my life. I'm going to do what I want to do."

Sylvana Sok: Not Limited by Allergies

Moving to Atlanta seemed like a terrific opportunity for Sylvana Sok. That is, until the 30-year-old discovered that the varieties of Georgia foliage turned the sunny outdoors into an obstacle course for her health. "It turned out I was allergic to every grass down south," she says. "I love to be outside even though I'm allergic to everything."

In addition to trees, pollen and ragweed, dust, mold, and mildew can also throw her for a loop. But she refuses to allow her allergies to prevent her from exercising and being active, especially since Atlanta's parks and trails are a real treat for any runner. With organization, alternative exercise, and medication, she's determined to keep her allergies at bay.

Growing up in Indiana, Sok spent summers on Lake Michigan, most of the time engaging in outdoor activities. But when she turned 19, her allergies began to develop. Her immediate remedy was medication. But adding yoga and Pilates to her exercise routine also helped her breathing immensely, she says. "I'm not asthmatic, but I felt I wasn't getting enough air," Sok says. "Yoga helps a lot, and Pilates strengthens your core. You can feel the difference."

Altering her diet to eliminate bothersome foods and adding nutritious ones also aided her well-being. Alcohol makes her symptoms worse, so that's a definite no-no. After her runs, she immediately showers to rinse off any allergens or pollutants that might have gathered on her skin. She also monitors the daily allergy forecast on the news to determine when she should head outside. If conditions appear too risky, she goes to the gym instead and exercises indoors. "It's a good balance with the running and just makes me feel better overall," Sok says.

"I'm the poster child for people who shouldn't be outside," Sok says. "But you shouldn't be limited by allergies."

Laura Jakosky: Controlling Allergies Holistically

Whenever it becomes too challenging to inhale, Laura Jakosky has a mantra she repeats: "The universe provides me with the ability to breathe abundantly." It's a mantra Jakosky has repeated since childhood, and it serves as a mental and spiritual antidote to the allergies that have plagued her for years.

When Jakosky was a child, her mother would come to her bedside and help soothe her by reading, taking her through breathing exercises, and helping her to conjure visualizations. For instance, together they might imagine a secret place. "She got me to learn to relax, and that was a big part of training," Jakosky says. "I could calm myself down on my own and I could command it." Now, when her allergies ignite, she often relies on these same tools.

Jakosky’s holistic approach -- combined with more traditional approaches -- has enabled her to take charge of her condition. "It's about being able to keep my body and my mind in control," Jakosky says. "If the environmental factors get to you, then you start to panic. If you have a couple things in your back pocket, you know how to turn off the negative trigger. That makes a difference -- the mind and the spirit part of it." This approach has helped her overcome the punishment that allergies dole out and remain extremely active.

Growing up in southern California, Jakosky knew that allergens, which often made exercise a struggle, were plentiful. A competitive runner in high school, she excelled, even when she had to gasp for breath. On home videos, she can be heard wheezing while struggling for air. But that didn’t stop her. While attending the University of Arkansas, she continued to run competitively.

Once she visited an allergist and was tested to see what irritated her. “The list included peanuts, shellfish, and pretty much everything outside," Jakosky says. Medication -- which has included allergy shots, inhalers, nasal gels, and oral remedies -- helped reduce the symptoms.

Today, Jakosky lives in New York City where she works full time, runs 20 to 30 miles a week, lifts weights, takes aerobics classes, and plays soccer and dodge ball. Open to all types of treatment, she's found that yoga works well to keep her breathing more easily. Her holistic mind-body approach has worked so well that she no longer needs as much of the medication she once relied on to get through the day. The combination of holistic, traditional, and physical treatments, she says, has been the key to her success.

"I don't feel any one factor would have fixed the breathing 100 percent," Jakosky says. "It was that mix of it."

Show Sources


American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology: "Allergy Statistics.

"Clifford W. Bassett, MD, FAAAAI, FACAAI, medical director of the Allergy and Asthma Care of New York in New York City.

Liz Erk, Boston.

Fred Coe, Knoxville, Tenn.

Sylvanna Sok, Atlanta.

Laura Jokosky, New York City, N.Y.

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