Ahh, Spring! All winter long we anticipate the warmer weather, chirpier birds, and blooming flowers. But for one in four Americans, spring also heralds seasonal allergies, an immune system response that turns sufferers into congested, itchy sneeze machines. Plus, thanks to a precipitation-heavy winter, experts are predicting a particularly severe Spring pollen season. Want to avoid as much of that mess as possible? Read on for effective allergy treatments that promise to prevent or lessen your reaction to the allergen onslaught.
When Does Pollen Appear?
Allergens are present all year round—in the Spring, it's all about tree pollen (which hits the South and South-Atlantic states the hardest), while Summer brings grass pollen, and Fall is for weed pollen, says Mike Tringale, senior vice president of external affairs for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA). "What matters is each person's individual allergies," he says. "Typically, people have allergies to three or four species of trees and plants. So even if pollen counts are high, it doesn't mean your allergies are worse. That's why diagnosis is such an important part of allergy care."
Tringale recommends consulting an allergist to kick off treatment. "A lot of people are self-diagnosing and self-treating, but they might guess wrong," he says. "You may think spring is to blame, but it may be dust or mold or your cat. Allergies are a tailor-made disease for each person."
Where Is Pollen the Worst? Every year, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America produces the Spring Allergy Capitals Report detailing the unlucky cities that face a harsh allergy season ahead. Based on pollen scores, the number of allergy medications used per patient, and the number of allergy specialists per patient, these towns take the top 10 for 2014:
- Louisville, KY (100.00)
- Memphis, TN (97.10)
- Baton Rouge, LA (91.93)
- Oklahoma City, OK (91.19)
- Jackson, MS (90.61)
- Chattanooga, TN (90.18)
- Dallas, TX (88.82)
- Richmond, VA (88.68)
- Birmingham, AL (87.71)
- McAllen, TX (87.61)
But take heart: "In the big picture, it doesn't really matter whether the spring pollen is slightly more or slightly less," says Tringale. "People need to be prepared, regardless of what the predictions might be. You're supposed to take remedies to prevent allergies from happening. Once you have symptoms, it's too late."
Which leads us to our first tip...
1. Take allergy medicine early.
If you have seasonal allergies, start taking your preferred medication (nasal antihistamines/steroids, oral antihistamines, or eye drops) two weeks before symptoms are likely to set in, says Clifford W. Bassett, M.D., Medical Director of Allergy and Asthma Care of New York and AAFA ambassador. Once your nasal or airway passages are inflamed, it reduces the chances that medication will work. "If you take the right meds before symptoms are severe, they'll work better," he says.
If your main complaints are nasal congestion, sneezing, and a runny nose, opt for a nasal spray, like azelastine (Astelin), says Dr. Bassett. (However, he cautions patients to stop using nasal decongestant sprays after five days, since the spray irritates the lining of the nose and can exacerbate symptoms, causing a rebound runny nose.) If allergies typically make you feel itchy, try non-sedating oral antihistamines, such as loratadine (Claratin), fexofenadine (Allegra), or cetirizine (Zyrtec). And if your allergies make it hard to sleep, take Benedryl or Chlor-Trimetin, which are 100% sedation antihistamines.
2. Limit pollen exposure.
Every little bit helps when the air is hazy with pollen. Wear sunglasses and a brimmed hat, keep the windows closed at home, and avoid the outdoors at midday to afternoon when pollen levels are at their highest, says Dr. Bassett.
And when you come home, try to de-pollen yourself as thoroughly as possible. Change your outdoor clothing before going in the bedroom, and shower and wash your hair before turning in for the night.
3. Try natural remedies.
Not a fan of conventional medication? Naturopathic doctor Doni Wilson, CNS, CPM, an active member of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP) and the Association for the Advancement of Restorative Medicine (AARM), recommends patients take natural supplements like nettles and a plant pigment called quercetin to relieve allergy-induced runny nose, watery eyes, hives, and swelling. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, quercetin acts as an antihistamine and an anti-inflammatory, and in test tubes, it "prevents immune cells from releasing histamines, chemicals that cause allergic reactions."
Another strategy: vitamin C. "Even something as simple as vitamin C can help," says Dr. Wilson. "It's a natural antihistamine, but it's very gentle—you need to take 500-1000 mg., three times a day to reduce symptoms."
Dr. Bassett opts for cayenne pepper and green tea to reduce allergic reaction without OTC medication. "Spices such as cayenne and chili pepper contain capsaicin which helps reduce nasal congestion and stuffiness," he says. If you suffer from cedar pollen allergies, drinking a green tea called "Benifuuki" might be your best bet. A double-blind study in Japan found that "symptoms such as nose blowing and eye itching were significantly relieved in the Benifuuki group compared with the placebo group."
4. ...Or homeopathy.
For people who subscribe to homeopathy, a system of medicine based on the principle of treating "like with like", Dr. Wilson, a longtime allergy sufferer who gets groggy on OTC medications, says a product called Triple Allergy Defense (available on Amazon.com, $29.95) works for her. With a dosage of 20 drops, one to three times a day, Triple Defense purports to reduce the duration and severity of allergy symptoms related to pollen, mold and dust. "The results are pretty immediate—you can tell within minutes that it's helping," she says.
5. Rinse your nasal passages regularly.
Every expert we spoke with advocates rinsing your nasal passages daily during pollen season. "Keeping your nasal passage clean and clear is a helpful practice for anybody," says Tringale. Dr. Wilson believes nasal irrigation is especially important for people who are constantly headachy and stuffy. "Rinsing with a salt water solution decreases inflammation in the sinuses," she says. How does a saline rinse work? "Nasal saline can dilute and rinse away pollen and molds that have traveled to your nasal passages," says Dr. Bassett.
One of the most popular tools for rinsing nasal passages is a nasal irrigation pot, or neti pot, (pictured), which allows you to pour liquid into one nostril so that it flows through your passages and out the other nostril. For beginners, the process can be slightly clumsy—find detailed neti pot directions and safety guidelines on the FDA website.
6. Balance your hormones and reduce stress.
In keeping with her holistic health strategy, Dr. Wilson believes you have to address underlying issues that may be exacerbating your allergic reactions. If you've battled hormone imbalance, chronic stress, or food sensitivities, addressing them could alleviate your allergy woes. "When we're stressed, we're more likely to have allergic responses," she says. "Research shows that when our cortisol levels are imbalanced, it affects the immune system. The more we can help them reduce stress (through yoga, meditation, getting enough sleep), we can decrease the likelihood of having allergic responses to the environment."
A study published in the April 2014 issue of Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI) supports stress-reduction therapy—it found that allergy sufferers with persistent stress experience more allergy flares.
7. Commit to a healthy diet and exercise.
Another back-door allergy attack strategy: priming your body with a healthy lifestyle, including adequate exercise and a nutrient-rich diet. "An allergic disorder means you have a chronic disease of your immune system," says Tringale. "Exercise can bolster your immune system, which means it can be a helpful strategy when you're fighting your allergies. Immunotherapy [like allergy shots] increase your tolerance to a trigger, but your body will still produce antibodies to those allergens." But if your body is in top condition, you can put up with more of the trigger before reacting, he says.
8. Give your home a thorough spring cleaning.
Think allergies are just an outdoor thing? Not so. If you ever open your windows and doors, keep your shoes on in the house, or don't strip down your clothes when you come inside, there is pollen in your home. Aside from pollen, "a lot of people are also allergic to dust mites and mold," says Tringale. To reduce indoor allergen exposure, keep pets off the bed (dust mites are attracted to pet dander), vacuum often, set air conditioners to "recirculate", keep the windows closed, and check for moisture, if you have a mold allergy, he advises. "A little bit of elbow grease goes a long way."
The Local Honey Remedy Is a Myth
While some natural remedies haven't been studied extensively enough to be recommended by the Western medical community, one natural allergy treatment has been disproven outright: eating local honey. While honey is a healthy sugar-substitute and displays antibiotic properties, a 2002 study published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology found that local honey doesn't desensitize allergy sufferers to the pollen in the air. People are allergic to windborne pollen, says Tringale, and for the most part, bees collect the heavy, sticky pollen present in flowers and fruit. So any of that pollen that makes it into the honey we eat wouldn't act as immunotherapy for the allergens that make us sneeze.