Spring is definitely in the air, with flowers blooming, bees buzzing and temperatures getting warmer. However, if you are like me and millions of others (an estimated 30 percent of the U.S. population) and you are reading this column with a runny or stuffy nose, itchy eyes, sore throat , or sneezing, then you have seasonal allergies, otherwise known as hay fever or allergic rhinitis.
Seasonal allergies are caused when your body’s immune system responds to pollen from trees, grasses, weeds or mold spores as harmful to the body, unleashing your body’s defenses against the onslaught of nature’s annual spring renaissance. The symptoms of hay fever can make you feel miserable and wish for winter. Moreover, evidence shows that seasonal allergies are lasting longer and becoming more severe as milder winters lead to longer pollination seasons. There are real consequences from not being able to breathe normally, such as developing asthma or having trouble sleeping, leading to exhaustion and poor performance at work or school.
There are several risk factors that make one more likely to suffer seasonal allergies that include:
- Other family members with allergies
- Being male
- Being first-born or born during pollen season
- Early exposure to antibiotics
- Exposure to mother’s smoking during the first year of life
- Exposure to indoor dust mites
Try the following 9 tips that may help control seasonal allergies before you call your doctor:
- Limit your exposure to allergy triggers by staying indoors on dry, windy days. It is best to go outside after it rains, when pollen is cleared away.
- Avoid outdoor activities in the early morning when pollen counts are at their highest.
- Take a shower to rinse off pollen and remove clothes that you have worn outside.
- Check the weather report for high pollen count days — this is now reported as part of local weather. When the count is high, stay inside and use your air conditioner. If you have to go outside, wear a mask.
- Make sure you change the filter on your air conditioner frequently and keep the windows and doors shut or use a portable indoor air purifier.
- Use a vacuum cleaner with a filter.
- Try over the counter treatments like antihistamine pills that relieve sneezing, itching, runny nose and watery eyes. Examples include: loratidine (Claritin©, Alavert©), cetirizine ( Zyrtec©), and fexofenadine ( Allegra©). There are older drugs on the market but they tend to cause drowsiness. The classic ones are diphenhydramine (Benadryl©) and chlorpheniramine (Chlor- Trimeton©). You can also try decongentants such as pseudoephedrine (Sudafed©), oxymetazoline (Afrin©), phenylephrine (Neo synephrine©) help relieve stuffy noses. These drugs come in both pill and nasal spray form. These drugs only help temporarily because the longer you take them the more likely your symptoms are to return. These drugs may also require a call to your doctor, especially if you have high blood pressure. There are also nasal sprays that contain cromolyn, which may help before you actually have symptoms— those days when you see a high pollen count but have not gone outside. Or you can try a combination of drugs that have drugs that are listed above.
- Rinse your sinuses and nasal passages using distilled sterile water. Drug stores often sell squeeze bottles or a neti pot — a special container for rinsing your nose. This helps relieve nasal stuffiness because it cleanses away the pollen and other substances. If you want to avoid drug preparations, “natural remedies” that have been studied for hay fever include extracts from the root of the shrub butterbar, which helps to calm your immune system reaction to various pollens. This treatment is similar in effectiveness to well-known over the counter antihistamines.
- Extracts of tinospora cordifolia or the algae spirulina have been shown to be helpful for hay fever.
However, be careful, as herbal preparations are not monitored for quality and safety to the degree that medications are, and there can be side effects.
If all the above fails and you are feeling miserable, then it is time to call your doctor to have special skin and blood tests to determine which substance is causing the allergy. This information can then be used for further treatments, which may include allergy shots or other therapies.
Hopefully these home-based treatments for seasonal allergy symptoms will help you survive, and more importantly enjoy, springtime.
Dr. Joseph Sirven is a first-generation Cuban-American. He is Professor and Chairman of the Department of Neurology and was past Director of Education for Mayo Clinic Arizona. He is editor-in-chief of epilepsy.com and has served U.S. and global governmental agencies including the Institute of Medicine, NASA, FAA, NIH and CDC.