At this very moment, the trees around your home are mobilizing for their first major assault of the season. That's allergy season, those sneezy, itchy-eyed, congested months from early spring to late fall when trees, then grasses, and finally, weeds bombard the air with pollen. If that weren't irritating enough, it's also the time of year when outdoor molds start to release airborne spores.
If you're one of the more than 35 million Americans with seasonal allergic rhinitis, or hay fever, you may already be feeling nostalgic for sleet and slush. You needn't. The truth is, you can still venture outdoors, and enjoy it too.
Here's how to stay outside, active and virtually symptom-free, all allergy season.
|Duck the Stuff that Makes You Sneeze|
With pollen and mold, the best approach is avoidance. Pollen and mold spore levels vary with location, time of day, and the weather, explains Gailen D. Marshall, MD, PhD, director of the division of allergy and clinical immunology at the University of Texas, Houston, Medical School.
You breathe harder and suck in more air when you're exercising than when you're, say, lying on the couch. That's why it's particularly important to minimize your exposure to allergens when you work out outside. The more air you suck in, the more airborne pollen and mold spores you suck in too. To minimize your exposure, exercise when and where pollen and mold levels are lowest. And...
Be fickle. If you dabble in different types of exercise, stick with the one least likely to expose you to allergens during allergy season. Opt for tennis on a cement court rather than, say, golf, suggests Malcolm N. Blumenthal, MD, director of the Asthma and Allergy Program at the University of Minnesota Medical School in Minneapolis.
Breathe through your nose, not your mouth. Your nose filters incoming air, helping keep allergens out.
Medicate first. Using certain medications, such as cromolyn sodium and antihistamines, before you exercise can ease allergy symptoms.
Exercise inside. When the pollen count is high, it's time to go to the gym or the mall.
Avoid outdoor chemicals. In addition to avoiding pollen-showered groves and moldering leaf piles, steer clear of major highways and industries when you exercise. Chemical irritants from exhaust and from factory smokestacks can worsen allergy symptoms, says Dr. Blumenthal. And avoid fireworks displays on the holidays; the sulfur in the gunpowder is irritating.
|Lighten Your Load|
Your "allergenic load," that is. The more allergens you're exposed to at a given time, the higher your allergenic load, and the worse your symptoms are, Dr. Marshall explains. If you're allergic to cats and dust mites in addition to pollen and mold, curling up on an overstuffed chair with Fluffy on a spring afternoon can make that load virtually unbearable. Here are some tips to help you limit your exposure to these top offenders:
Dust mites. Substitute washable throw rugs for wall-to-wall carpets, which, like blankets, down comforters, and curtains, are favorite mite habitats. Choose shades for windows. Or wash curtains, along with throw rugs and bed linens, in hot water (more than 130°F) to kill mites. Dust often with a damp cloth. Get a zippered, plastic, dust-proof cover for your mattress.
Dog and cat dander. Have someone who's not allergic bathe and brush them weekly. Have the same person sweep up using a vacuum with a High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter. (If you must clean up yourself, wear a microfiber surgical face mask, available at garden and hardware stores.) And keep those four-legged fur balls out of your bedroom.
Indoor mold. Get a dehumidifier to dry out your basement, and use exhaust fans in other damp areas, such as the kitchen and bathroom, where mold proliferates. Wash bath mats often, and keep houseplants to a minimum (mold loves potting soil).
|Dress for Success|
Here's how to make the best-dressed list during allergy season:
Wear natural fibers rather than synthetics. When synthetics rub against one another, they create an electrical charge that attracts pollen, which, as it turns out, is also electrically charged, Dr. Marshall explains. Natural fibers such as cotton also breathe better, so they stay drier and less hospitable for moisture-loving mold.
Dry clothes and bedding in the dryer. Don't dry your clothing on the line during allergy season. It'll help you to avoid bringing pollen in the house.
Choose glasses over contacts. Or wear sunglasses, preferably the wraparound variety.
|Plant a Nose-Friendly Garden|
The best way to deal with yard work is to sit back with a cold drink and have someone else do it. Failing that...
Wear a microfiber mask whenever you dig around in the dirt, rake leaves, or mow the lawn. All these activities are guaranteed to stir up pollen and mold.
Take an antihistamine, or use cromolyn sodium 30 minutes before you start.
Leave your outer work clothes outside after you've finished, and wash them before wearing them again.
Shower immediately after you come inside.
During the spring grass season, cut the grass short, before it can sprout pollen-producing flowers.
Get rid of the compost heap (a prime source of mold), or at the very least, keep it as far from the house as possible.
Consider replacing plants that produce lots of offending pollen with more benign varieties. Rules of green thumb: Choose showy, flowering trees and shrubs such as apple and cherry trees and azaleas; they produce waxy pollen that's too heavy to ride the breeze. On the lawn, opt for nonpollinating ground cover such as myrtle and ivy rather than grass.
|Wash Off the Pests|
While you're outside, pollen and mold spores can parachute onto your hair, eyebrows, eyelashes, and skin. To give them the boot and minimize your exposure, do the following once you cross the threshold:
Wash your hands. Rinse your eyes. And shower (before bed, or right away if you've done yard work).
|Say Yes to Drugs|
If, despite your best efforts to avoid pollen and molds, your nose is still running, drugs can help. For mild symptoms, it's worth trying an over-the-counter (OTC) remedy, says Marshall Plaut, MD, chief of the allergic mechanisms section of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease in Bethesda, MD.
If you have glaucoma, or prostate, breathing, or other health problems, or if you take other medications, check with your doctor first. Some allergy remedies can make these conditions worse or interact with other drugs. If an OTC remedy doesn't help, ask your doctor about alternatives, Dr. Plaut suggests. Here's an overview of your options:
Cromolyn Sodium Nasal Spray (OTC) Cromolyn sodium (Nasalcrom) helps combat watery eyes, runny nose, and sneezing and causes very few side effects. But it's not as effective as antihistamines or nasal steroids, and it doesn't work for everyone, Dr. Plaut notes. You'll need to start using it a few weeks before allergy season begins, and use it four times daily during the season.
Antihistamines (OTC and prescription) These combat sneezing, itchy nose and throat, runny nose, and watery eyes. Older prescription and OTC antihistamines (e.g., Actifed, Benadryl) can cause drowsiness, but newer, prescription-only ones (e.g., Claritin, Allegra) are less likely to do so. You may need to begin taking newer antihistamines a few days prior to the start of allergy season.
Decongestants (OTC and prescription) Decongestants (e.g., Sudafed) help relieve congestion. If you don't get relief with an antihistamine alone, adding a decongestant may do the trick, Dr. Plaut says. In fact, decongestants are often combined with an antihistamine in a single preparation. Don't use decongestant nose drops and sprays (e.g., Afrin) more than a few days in a row, however, since longer use can lead to "rebound" congestion.
Prescription Steroid Nasal Sprays These sprays (e.g., Rhinocort, Flonase) relieve most symptoms and are often very effective when combined with antihistamines. For best results, lean forward, insert the bottle into your nose, aim toward your ear, and squirt. The sprays work best when started a week or so before allergy season.
Immunotherapy or Allergy Shots This is the only treatment that can reduce allergy symptoms over time, Dr. Plaut says. Many people with pollen allergies see a significant reduction after 1 year of treatment and are able to stop treatment after about 3 years. And some research suggests that giving allergic kids allergy shots may even reduce their risk of developing asthma later, Dr. Plaut adds.
|Consider the Alternatives|
Finally, consider the following complementary therapies, courtesy of Walter Crinnion, ND, director of Healing Naturally, a naturopathic medical practice in Kirkland, WA.
Quercetin A nutrient found in onions and other foods, quercetin appears to inhibit allergic reactions. Take a 600-mg capsule (far more than you could ever get from eating onions) two or three times a day.
Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) Get a standardized, freeze-dried extract of this herbal antihistamine, and take three capsules three times a day. Or take 1 teaspoon of 1:5 tincture three times a day. Choose products made from the whole plant; avoid products made from the root. Start taking nettle before allergy season begins, and continue taking it daily through the season or whenever your particular allergy surfaces.
|Know Your Numbers|
Though pollen levels vary over the course of the day, a pollen count (the measure of pollen levels in a given area over the preceding 24 hours) can tip you off when it's particularly hazardous outside.
Many people start having trouble when the count reaches the 20 to 100 grains per cubic meter range. For the pollen count in your area, as well as helpful tips on allergies, call (800) 9-POLLEN (976-5536) between 8:00 am and 8:00 pm EST.
(Mold counts aren't as reliable a guide, because mold spore levels are directly related to weather and will vary more widely over the course of a day than pollen levels do.)
Time of Day When Levels Are Highest Pollen: 5:00 to 10:00 am and early evening Mold: varies with type of mold; some release spores during the day; others, at night
Time of Day When Levels Are Lowest Pollen: mid to late afternoon Mold: varies with type of mold
Weather When Levels Are Highest Pollen: warm, dry, breezy Mold: warm and humid, particularly after a rain shower
Weather When Levels Are Lowest Pollen: chilly, wet* Mold: cold and rainy
Places When Levels Are Highest Pollen: parks with lots of trees and grass; meadows Mold: damp, shady spots with fallen leaves and rotting vegetation; freshly cut lawns, fields, and pastures
Places Where Levels Are Lowest Pollen: indoor spaces with filtered air Mold: dry, cool, well-ventilated areas
*Note: heavy rain can temporarily wash pollen out of the air.
|Find the Reason For Your Sneezing|
Don't know what's making you "achoo"? Keep a diary. Write down when and where you start sneezing, itching, and coughing. If your symptoms are worst when you're in the park on hot, dry, breezy days, you've probably got a pollen allergy. Worst when you're raking leaves on warm, muggy days? Blame mold.
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