Spring is around the corner, and along with budding flowers, warmer temperatures and longer days come runny noses and itchy, watery eyes for the millions of Americans who suffer from seasonal allergies.
Allergies occur when the immune system misidentifies typically harmless substances, such as pollen, as a threat and tries to fight them off. The congestion you experience is your own body’s immune system battling what it perceives as a danger.
Seasonal allergies—also called hay fever and allergic rhinitis—can make you miserable. But with proper preparation you can enjoy the great outdoors.
Here are six strategies to use when battling seasonal allergies.
1. Monitor pollen counts.
If you’ve had spring allergies in the past, expect difficulties around the same time of year. However, the severity of the allergy season can vary each year and depends on where you live.
Spring allergies are usually caused by mold and pollen and can fluctuate depending on weather. For example, trees pollinate earlier during a warmer than usual winter season, like the kind we’re having this year.
Websites such as Pollen.com or The Weather Channel will tell you the pollen level in your ZIP code. Get in the habit of checking these regularly so you can anticipate when spring allergies may be severe.
When you know when pollen counts will be high, you can be on the defensive. Read on to find out how.
2. Start your allergy meds early.
No matter where you live, start your allergy medicines about a month before spring usually occurs in your region—and start right away if you begin to experience allergy symptoms.
“Starting several weeks before you anticipate it happening really can help because the allergy medicine prevents that immune response,” says Dana Neutze, MD, PhD, associate medical director of the UNC Family Medicine Center.. “If you can get ahead of it, you’re in better shape.”
The good news is that a lot of medications for allergies are now available without a prescription. If one does not work after a period of time, try a different one.
3. Avoid being outdoors.
While it may be tempting to throw open the windows or enjoy the great outdoors as the weather warms, stay inside when pollen counts are high. For example, if you typically exercise outdoors, take your workout indoors. And if you do go outside, be sure to rinse off any pollen when you come back in.
“Take a shower as soon as you get indoors to reduce the amount of pollen you’re bringing inside,” Dr. Neutze says. “Keep windows and doors shut as well.”
If you have pets, wash them down more frequently if they’ve been playing outside, especially on high pollen count days.
4. Change the filters and get an air purifier.
Be sure to change the air filters in your home regularly, especially during allergy season, to help remove allergens in the air you breathe. If possible, purchase a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) air purifier. HEPA technology forces air through a fine mesh that traps harmful particles, such as pollen, that other filters may recirculate back into the air of your home.
Vacuum often with a vacuum cleaner that has a HEPA filter.
5. Rinse your sinuses.
Use a nasal saline rinse, such as a neti pot, to ease allergy symptoms. To use a neti pot effectively, tilt your head to the side and allow the solution to go up your nose and come out the other nostril without getting into your ears. Be sure to use distilled or sterile water, or boiled and cooled tap water, to avoid potentially serious infections.
“Just like you might wash the pollen off your car, you can also wash the pollen out of your nose so that you’re not exposed to it as much,” Dr. Neutze says.
6. Talk to your doctor.
If you’ve tried avoiding allergens and are taking over-the-counter medications but still can’t find relief, talk to your doctor. You may need skin tests or blood tests to find out exactly what allergens trigger your symptoms. Your doctor also may recommend a series of allergy shots, which is an individually targeted therapy that retrains your immune system to ignore the allergen that bothers you.
If you experience seasonal allergies, talk to your doctor about the best treatment for you. Need a doctor? Find one near you.