Women’s Health magazine: 3 Ways to Outsmart Allergies

Don't let blazing-red eyes and achoos drive you crazy this season.

PUBLISHED: APRIL 2, 2015  |  BY AVIVA PATZ

inRemember the Polar Vortex? Baby stuff. In the Pollen Vortex, you can't just hunker down for a few days and wait for the storm to blow over. With more pollen in the air, this allergy season is set to be longer and nastier than ever. "Many seasonal sufferers who previously had relatively mild symptoms are now experiencing full-on allergy overload," says Clifford W. Bassett, M.D., medical director of Allergy & Asthma Care of New York.

Indeed, one national study found that the number of people sputtering in response to common outside allergens like pollen rose around 15 percent from 2005 to 2008, and experts say it's only skyrocketed since. An all-time peak of nearly 40 million Americans now suffer from them, and in a recent WH poll, 60 percent of respondents said their allergies have worsened lately. All of which, quite frankly, blows, considering that approximately a bajillion studies have found that spending time outdoors boosts mood and mind, makes exercise feel easier, and can help you live longer.

What do we have to thank for this explosion of gesundheits? Climate change, for one. The planet is heating up, meaning plants are living longer and producing more pollen. Grass-pollen production, in particular, is set to double in the next 100 years, say researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst; tree pollen and ragweed have already risen over the past decade. Balmier temps also kick off spring allergies earlier, extending the misery by nearly a month.

Even if you've never had so much as a sniffle, you're not off the hook, says Kevin McGrath, M.D., a national spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. New sensitivities can show up out of the blue at any time or age.

But don't bulk-order eye drops and antihistamines just yet. Even the most severely allergic can reap the rewards of nature without becoming a stuffy, puffy, mucousy mess. Stick to this three-step, total anti-allergy action plan—the very same one top experts in the field adhere to themselves!—then go outside and play.

1. Help Your Body Help You
If the devil finds work for idle hands, he may do the same for an idle immune system. Here's how to keep yours working hard.

Some experts theorize that your body's defenses can get "bored" without germs to battle (blame: antibiotic overuse and our modern craze for cleanliness). As such, they begin overreacting to harmless substances such as ragweed, says Estelle Levetin, Ph.D., a professor and the chair of biological science at The University of Tulsa in Oklahoma. To stop that from happening, you've got to challenge your immune response, starting in a surprising place—your belly.

Mounting evidence suggests that a thriving microbiome—that ecosystem of good and bad bacteria in our intestines—is the key to a robust immune system. It can get thrown off balance by things beyond your control (like your DNA and how many antibiotics you took as a kid), as well as by the choices you make today, says microbiologist Martin Blaser, M.D., director of NYU Langone Medical Center's Human Microbiome Program. Too much sugar, stress, and booze can all dial back the number of positive bacteria in your tum.

Now, you can't go back and trash the scripts from your pediatrician, but you can protect the good germs you have left. For starters, ask if the pills your M.D. is offering are really needed (some 50 percent of antibiotics can't even treat the diagnosed illness). Then nourish your friendly gut bacteria; fiber-rich foods like beans, avocado, and brussels sprouts are good picks, per the journal Nutrients.

2. Outsmart Pollen
To pull a fast one on the P-word, you need to know its M.O.

Stay indoors during prime times. Pollen counts tend to be highest between 5 a.m. and 10 a.m., and again at dusk.

Check the daily pollen count. Do this before heading out (try the Allergy Alert app by Pollen.com). The higher the number, the more likely you are to sneeze (4.9 is a "medium" count; above 9.7 is "high").

Wear protection. Slip on sunglasses to shield your eyes and lashes, and wear a hat (hair is a pollen magnet, especially if you use gel or other sticky products). If you're particularly sensitive, consider a dust-filtering mask, like the kind carpenters use, to cover your nose and mouth (no, a cute scarf won't cut it), says allergist Tim Mainardi, M.D., a clinical instructor at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. Yeah, you're going to look goofy. But not as goofy as you would with a face full of snot.

3. Mind Your Meds
When all else fails, it may be time for some chemical warfare. Your strategy: Start simple and add on, say allergists. (BTW, you'll want to see one of these doctors if symptoms make day-to-day life a slog.) Start at the first item on this list, and if two weeks have passed with minimal relief, move on to the next option.

Steroid Nasal Sprays (OTC or Rx)
These meds can reduce the volume of congestion-causing inflammation, but know this: You need to use them daily during pollen season, and they can take up to 14 days to kick in—no fun when you're suffering. Skip nonsteroidal OTC decongestant sprays; studies show they can actually worsen stuffiness.

OTC Antihistamines
A daily pill can ward off swelling and a runny nose; eyedrops can soothe crazy-itchy eyes.

Prescription Montelukast Sodium 
When your sneezing and dripping are more stubborn than a bad case of bedhead, these once-a-day pills can short-circuit inflammation higher up in the nasal pathway.

Immunotherapy
Weekly shots may help reprogram your immune system to tolerate whatever sets you off. You may have to get them for up to 28 weeks (and some people need maintenance shots for up to five years), but "they're the closest thing we have to a cure for allergies," says Mainardi. Needlephobes, rejoice: The FDA recently approved Rx immunotherapy tablets that dissolve under the tongue. Take once a day during your trigger allergy season.

For tips on freshening up with makeup when you have allergies and to find out what weird things you might be allergic to, check out the April 2015 issue of Women's Health, on newsstands now.