All in the Family: Are These Allergies or Not?

On April 5, 2015

Photo by David A. LaSpina

It’s that time of year again. Just as I start to venture outside to enjoy the great weather, my eyes start to itch and water. I start sneezing uncontrollably and I get rashy. To be honest, seasonal allergies make me feel like a sniffling and stumbling zombie.

The flora and fauna in Japan may be completely different from your home country’s, and this may even be the first time you have experienced seasonal allergies. You may even have allergy-like symptoms but actually be suffering from another seasonal problem. How can you tell? How can you stop the torment?

Is it a Cold?

It’s actually somewhat difficult to differentiate between seasonal allergies and a cold. As the seasons change, colds are also a common occurrence. A cold is where a virus has invaded your body and allergies are where an allergen has invaded your body. Your body fights these invaders in a very similar way.

Fevers and aches are mostly indicative of a cold since allergies typically do not have such symptoms. However, not all colds come with fevers or aches. In most cases, colds shouldn’t last for more than 2 weeks, so if you are experiencing symptoms for more than 2 weeks, this could be a sign of allergies or a more serious problem and you should see a doctor.

Is it Something Else?

There are several other allergy imitators out there. My husband always thought he had allergies and we were both taking allergy medications daily during certain times of the year. One year was particularly bad, so we both went to a clinic to get tested for allergies. We wanted to know specifically what allergens were triggering our misery.

We discovered that he didn’t even have seasonal allergies. My husband has recurrent sinusitis and is particularly sensitive to any sort of pollutants in the air. With the increase of sand and chemical air pollutants these days, my husband is not the only person suffering from pseudo-allergies.

The infamous Asian Dust from mainland Asia has been cited to cause a lot of respiratory problems all throughout Asia in recent years. It is particularly prevalent in the springtime, coinciding with other allergens. As people increase their outdoor activities in the spring, they increase their exposure. Many misdiagnose their symptoms as being allergies.

Getting Checked

To be sure, you can always get tested for allergies. Be aware that the most common test for adults in Japan is the blood panel test, and that you are limited in how many allergens you can test per visit. The National Insurance plan will only cover a certain number of allergens per test per visit. If you want to do additional testing, you will need to pay for it without insurance, though many clinics will try to talk you out of this route because it is expensive for you and a lot of paperwork for them.

Even if you make frequent visits to the clinic and get everything checked, you can have false negatives for various allergies. Sensitivities and intolerances do not show up in tests, which can also cause a lot of frustration. It may take some investigation on your part to determine what could be causing your discomfort.

I Know What’s Wrong… So Now What?

When it comes to pollen and outdoor pollutants, it is very difficult to limit your exposure and still live your life. Medicines target allergies or their symptoms, but what else can you do? You can wear face masks to avoid breathing in allergens or irritants, but your eyes and skin will still be exposed. You can try to avoid being outside on days with a particularly high pollen count or low air quality, but this can cause problems if your daily life requires you to leave your home. Treating the exposure is sometimes more realistic than preventing the exposure from happening.

My husband and I have found the most relief from taking frequent showers when possible and inhaling steam from the shower, a cup of tea, or an actual steam machine. We also use eyewash and a neti pot in the morning and at night.

Various types of eyewash can be easily found at most drug stores in Japan. Some brands have a cool menthol-like ingredient to ease itching, which may be unsettling for those who have never tried it before. You will want to check the packaging carefully.

While nasal irrigation (鼻洗浄, はなせんじょう) is not as popular in Japan as it is in other countries, I have found neti pots for sale at my local rural drug store along with saline mix packets. If you can’t find an actual neti pot, there are saline sprays or syringe type products for nasal irrigation.

Additionally, it is not too difficult to make your own neti pot or saline solution. While traveling, I once made a makeshift neti pot out of a teapot I bought at a 100 yen shop. When making your own saline rinse, make sure to use sea salt or another plain salt, not the types that have additives, like table salt or iodized salt. Also be sure to use enough salt, otherwise the solution will cause an unpleasant burning sensation.


Groovy punky reggae nerd from Kansai.
  • KamelFields says:

    I was told not to use tap water, but to use distilled water instead. There can be parasites in tap water that die in your stomach, but thrive in your sinus passages.

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