If you are among the one in five Americans who suffer from seasonal allergies, you know the telltale signs that pop up each spring—stuffy nose, sneezing, watery and itchy eyes, and a dry cough. Whether your symptoms are mildly annoying or severely debilitating, they do not have to ruin a beautiful spring season. Here are seven ways Gary Pien, MD, PhD, an immunologist, allergist, and director of medical research at Summit Medical Group, says you can get relief.
- Find the problem.
- Look for patterns. If your symptoms start around the same time each year and are not accompanied by fever or other signs of a cold or infection, it may be allergies.
- Make an appointment with an allergist if you want to identify what you are allergic to and optimize your treatment plan. A simple blood or skin test, which pricks a small dose of the allergen under the skin, can screen for dozens of common allergens.
- Most spring allergies are caused by tree pollens. When trees bloom they release pollen into the air. When someone who is allergic comes into contact with those pollens the body recognizes the particles as foreign and produces a powerful mix of chemicals that trigger allergy symptoms.
Dr. Pien’s tip: “If your allergies are mild and well-tolerated with over-the-counter antihistamines like Claritin or Zyrtec, you may not need to see an allergist. But if you are not getting relief and have been relying on these medications for longer than a season, you may benefit from seeing your primary care doctor or an allergist.”
- Use over-the-counter medications.
There are several types of drugs that can help relieve symptoms. Unless you are under the supervision of a physician, these medications should only be used for a brief period of time.
- Antihistamines – alleviate congestion and itchy and watery eyes
- Decongestants – relieve nasal congestion, mucus, and swelling
- Nasal sprays – shrink swollen nasal tissues and make it easier to breathe
- Eye drops – alleviate itchy, teary, and red eyes
- Topical steroid creams - treat itchy or dry skin
Dr. Pien’s tip: “Antihistamines are generally well-tolerated. However, decongestants like Sudafed can cause serious side effects such as an elevated heart rate, high blood pressure, and insomnia. Use sparingly. Nasal sprays like Afrin should not be used for longer than three days, because they can have a rebound effect that actually leads to worsening congestion.”
- Rinse your sinuses.
- Nasal irrigation is a therapy you can do at home to clear out your nasal passages.
- An irrigation device called a Neti pot, which looks like a tiny teapot, is filled with saline solution and gently poured into the nasal cavity.
Dr. Pien’s tip: “Nasal saline rinses are a good add-on therapy. They can help provide short-term relief from symptoms, but are often most effective when used in conjunction with the right medications.”
- Take medication early and regularly
- Be ahead of the curve. For spring allergy sufferers, patients should start their allergy regime on March 1st. If you wait for symptoms to start, you will be playing catch up and it will be harder to get them under control.
Dr. Pien’s tip: “Continue to take the medication regularly even if you start to feel better. Tree pollens usually dissipate by the end of May, but if you are also allergic to grass pollens your symptoms may last through the early summer months as well.”
- Avoid the trigger
- Take a pass on outdoor chores when possible.
- If you have to mow the lawn, wear a mask to reduce your exposure. Search the shelves for a mask marked N95 that filters out 95 percent of particles.
- Consider wearing sunglasses or sport goggles that cover a large portion of the face to keep pollen out of the eyes.
- If you are prone to skin reactions, cover up with long-sleeved shirts and pants.
Dr. Pien’s tip: “Pollen and other allergens can stick to your body, hair, and clothes. Change your clothes when you come inside. Rinse off in the shower before bed to wash away any lingering particles. Do not let pets in the bedroom as they can track pollen into the home.”
- Run an air purifier
- An air cleaner or purifier is a device that removes contaminants—like dust, pollen, and smoke—from the air. Leave it running continuously for best results.
- Keep your windows shut.
Dr. Pien’s tip: “Use a HEPA air filter and avoid “ionic” air purifiers which generate ozone, an indoor air pollutant that can trigger asthma symptoms. HEPA filters have ratings that tell you how effective the product is at reducing different contaminants, such as pollen or dust. If you are trying to clean a larger room, you will need a bigger filter.”
- Consider allergy shots
- When all else fails, people with severe allergies may need a powerful treatment known as immunotherapy, or allergy shots.
- Allergy shots contain a small amount of the allergen you are sensitive to. With each shot, you slowly expose your immune system to a larger amount of the allergen. Over time, this will desensitize your body to the allergen and reduce your symptoms.
Dr. Pien’s tip: “As an alternative to allergy shots, the FDA recently approved two different sublingual immunotherapy allergy tablets that dissolve under the tongue. These prescription tablets, which can be taken at home, help reduce symptoms in grass pollen and ragweed allergy sufferers over time.”
- Stop Smoking
- Lighting up or being around secondhand smoke can aggravate seasonal allergies. Fumes from scented perfume or wood-burning fireplaces might also flare up your symptoms. These airborne irritants can further inflame the eyes, nose, and throat, which are already reeling from allergy symptoms, intensifying their effects.
Dr. Pien’s tip: “Anything that aggravates the nasal passages and lungs will heighten the severity of the allergy symptoms.”