At this time of the year, do you have itchy, watery eyes with repetitive sneezing? A running nose, inflamed sinuses, puffy eyes or congestion? Then you definitely know, not only is spring in the air but, also, more pollen. Now is that time of year that ushers in warmer weather and the growth of trees, flowers and grasses – calling to action the battle with seasonal allergies.
And the facts are, seasonal allergies can be brutal. Also called hay fever and allergic rhinitis, seasonal allergies can make you feel downright miserable. The condition can affect your quality of your life with sinus infections, disrupting sleep and your ability to perform well at school or at work.
While there is no known cure for allergies, the good news is that they can be managed through preventive measures and treatment. So, if you are suffering from seasonal allergies, here are some key understandings along with tips to help alleviate symptoms and manage it.
Dr. Nina’s What You Need to Know: About Allergy Season and How to Manage It
About Pollen: The fertilizing element of flowering trees, grass and weeds. Its light weight allows wind to readily carry it over large distances, which makes reproduction of plants all the more successful—but creates suffering for people with seasonal allergies. Pollen can more readily land in your eyes, on your skin, or enter your nostrils, gaining passage into your throat and lungs.
Depending on your geographic location, there are generally three pollen seasons – in the spring, trees and flowers; in the summer, grasses; and in the fall, leaves, weeds (and molds).
How does pollen causes allergy symptoms? For those with seasonal allergies, your body mistakenly interprets pollen as a dangerous, foreign invader. And, as a result, it mounts a fierce, ”take-no-prisoners” attack, releasing chemicals such as histamine or leukotrienes. They work in a concerted manner to get rid of the foreign invader by making you sneeze, your nose run, your eyes water, and cough. And although this is a great way to expel and dispose of germs that can make you sick, when it occurs because of pollen, it can be agonizing.
What other problems can allergies cause? In addition to the above-mentioned miserable symptoms, seasonal allergy sufferers may experience a plethora of other health problems:
- Sleep deprivation from nasal congestion or coughing that keeps us from falling asleep or wakes us up at night can lead to daytime drowsiness and its associated problems—difficulty concentrating, grouchiness, and headaches, to name a few.
- Asthmatics may see an exacerbation of their otherwise well-managed symptoms. Pollen is a potent asthma trigger. Additionally, seasonal allergy sufferers can experience asthma symptoms, even if they are not asthmatics. Further, allergies do no automatically cause people to develop asthma.
- Chronic sinusitis describes inflammation and swelling of the cavities around the nasal passages, known as our sinuses. Combined with increased mucus production, this can interfere with drainage and trap bacteria leading to infection.
- There is also some research suggesting that seasonal allergies can contribute to chronic fatigue syndrome and depression, likely from sleep deprivation or triggered by inflammatory reactions in the body.
Is it allergies or a common cold? Sometimes people confuse having allergies with the common cold. And it can be surprisingly difficult to differentiate between the two, because they share similar symptoms of sneezing, an itchy, runny nose, and being tired. Some clues to help you determine what is ailing you is that allergies do not cause a fever. So, if your temperature is elevated, it is a good sign you have a common cold. Additionally, allergy symptoms last weeks or months if left untreated, but colds generally clear up in a week.
Tips to survive allergy season? If you know you suffer from seasonal allergies and are aware of what triggers it, you are in a much better position to avoid debilitating allergic reactions. And start to protect yourself early on. If you have not already, take action now! Here are some steps that can give you relief:
- Keeping track of pollen forecasts is a good place to start. It is good to remember that these change by the hour, and can be boosted when it is warm, dry and windy.
- Reduce your exposure to pollen.
- When outdoors, block pollen from landing on your eyes or nostrils by wearing a large-brim hat or cap and large sunglasses.
- Minimize time spent outdoors when pollen counts are high—this typically runs midday to afternoon—and, also, when it is windy
- Keep pollen out of the home.
- When entering your home, make sure to park your shoes at the door, immediately change your clothes, and take a shower
- Use air-conditioning in the house or car instead of opening windows
- Wash bedding—sheets and pillow covers–in hot water at least once a week
- Change air filters and choose high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters. They are specially designed to trap pollen and dust and can provide much needed relief from pollen in the house.
- Wipe down your beloved furry friends (pets) before they enter the house
- Effective home remedies
- Inhaling steam through our nose is a simple way to refresh and soothe irritated sinuses and help soften and get rid of mucus in the nasal passages. You can boil several cups of water, then pour them into a big bowl, lean over the bowl, and drape a towel over your head. Then, breathe gently for 5 to 10 minutes.
- Saline sprays can flush pollen out of our nasal passages, thin and clear mucus, and combat the drying effects of prescription allergy medications. The sprays are available at most pharmacies.
- Neti pots are typically made of ceramic or plastic and can best be described as a cross between a small teapot and Aladdin’s magic lamp. They use a mechanism similar to saline sprays—the nasal cavities are rinsed with a saline solution to flush pollen out and soften mucus. The difference is that instead of squeezing a bottle, the “snout” of the pot delivers the solution.
- Over-the-counter medications
- Antihistamines relieve sneezing, a runny nose, and itchy eyes and nose. Some examples are diphenhydramine, loratadine, cetirizine, and fexofenadine (generic names).
- Decongestants alleviate nasal stuffiness by shrinking the lining of nasal passages. Some examples are pseudoephedrine, phenylephrine, and oxymetazoline (generic names).
- Prescription medications
- Nasal corticosteroids are an effective way to decrease swelling and mucus production in the nasal passages. And because the medication is directly administered into the nostrils—site-specific–they tend to have the fewest side effects, compared to oral medications that have to travel throughout your body in order to reach the site. You’re putting it where it needs to be.
- Leukotriene receptor antagonists inhibit the action of the inflammation molecule leukotrienes, which send signals to the body to mount an attack against pollen.
- Immunotherapy involves introducing the allergen in small amounts to the body so as to boost tolerance to pollen and blunt the body’s allergic response. It is a way of training your body to be “less allergic” and is the only treatment currently available that changes the immune system, and possibly prevents the development of new allergies and asthma. It is available as allergy shots or sublingual tablets.
People tend to have unique allergic responses, so the treatment that works best for each will vary accordingly. While some will be able to cope with seasonal allergies with over-the-counter medication and being careful about their exposure to allergens, others may require personal treatment plans. There are many routes available to help alleviate allergy symptoms. It is best to speak with a medical care professional who will be able to offer advice, provide treatment or refer a specialist, if needed.
Remember to always discuss all medications that you are taking with your doctor and pharmacist, prior to starting any new medications, even if it is available over-the-counter. And make sure to carefully follow the instructions on the label. If you are not getting relief – DO NOT take more medication than recommended in an attempt to lessen your symptoms but rather, DO call your primary physician to determine which treatment is best for your symptoms.
Allergies can be worrying, especially for those who are otherwise healthy and not use to experiencing sudden debilitating symptoms. Left unchecked, seasonal allergies can often turn an otherwise enjoyable time of year into misery.
Dr. Nina Radcliff is dedicated to her profession, her patients and her community, at large. She is passionate about sharing truths for healthy, balanced living as well as wise preventive health measures.
She completed medical school and residency training at UCLA and has served on the medical faculty at The University of Pennsylvania. She is a Board Certified Anesthesiologist. Author of more than 200 textbook chapters, research articles, medical opinions and reviews; she is often called upon by media to speak on medical, fitness, nutrition, and healthy lifestyle topics impacting our lives, today.