As the weather heats up, so do seasonal allergies. And if you’re among the nearly 50 million Americans who experience allergic reactions, chances are pollen is now your sworn enemy.
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But chin up – while you may have lost some allergy battles, you don’t have to lose the war. “You can get control of allergy symptoms by taking certain medications and making small tweaks to your warm-weather routine,” says allergist Sandra Hong, MD. Dr. Hong explains what you need to know to put your allergies in their place.
What causes allergies?
Spring allergies — like most others — are usually a case of mistaken identity. Your body sees harmless plant pollens as a dangerous enemy, causing the immune system to act.
“Your body releases chemicals called histamines,” says Dr. Hong. “In the case of seasonal allergies, histamines trigger the sneezes, runny noses and itchy eyes to get pollen out of your system.”
When does allergy season start?
While allergy season doesn’t officially start until the end of March in the Midwest, other parts of the country must grab their tissues much sooner.
“It depends on how warm the weather is,” says Dr. Hong. “If it’s really warm, people experience symptoms sooner.”
A harsh winter can also make seasonal allergies more year-round. And if your area experiences an unusually wet winter, be warned: “More water in the soil means plants can grow better. And more plants equal more pollen.”
Can you develop seasonal allergies later in life?
Yes, says Dr. Hong, though we don’t always understand why. Some reasons include:
- Your genes.
- Lifestyle changes, including living in urban areas instead of farms and spending more time indoors.
- Moving from one area to another.
How to cope with spring allergies: The early bird gets the worm
If your plan to defeat spring allergies starts when you see those first spring buds, you’re too late. “People who have seasonal allergies should prepare for their symptoms before they start,” Dr. Hong says. Here’s how:
Take meds early
“Take medications before allergy season starts,” recommends Dr. Hong. “Then you have your body’s defenses in place when pollen hits — before symptoms become severe and more difficult to control.”
If you take oral immunotherapy, called sublingual immunotherapy, it is important to start the treatment 12 weeks before peak season. The same goes for over-the-counter antihistamines and steroid nasal sprays.
Five ways to cope with seasonal allergies when pollen’s at its peak
If you started your medication regimen late, don’t despair. There are other steps you can take to stay sneeze-free.
1. Reduce your exposure
Run your air conditioning to keep pollens outdoors — and air purifiers may also be helpful, Dr. Hong recommends. “Keep pets out of your bedroom too, since they also have pollen on their coats,” she notes. You should also avoid drying clothing outdoors and take a shower and change your clothes before going to sleep.
2. Travel smart
If you’re planning a trip, research your destination to determine what allergens will be in the air. Keep the air conditioning on and the windows closed in your accommodations to reduce indoor pollen exposure by more than 90%.
If you’re driving to your destination:
- Run the air conditioning in the car for 10 minutes before you leave.
- Leave in the early morning or late evening so you encounter less traffic and air pollution.
- Recirculate the air in your car. This way, you’re not venting in pollen.
3. Rest easy
To sleep more soundly during allergy season:
- Close your bedroom windows and run the air conditioning, even on days that aren’t hot.
- Keep your sleeping space clean and free from allergens. Get rid of materials that attract dust.
- Use zippered covers for your pillow, mattress and box springs if you have dust mite allergies.
- Use blinds instead of fabric curtains and hardwood floors instead of carpet.
- Get rid of your ceiling fan, which flings dust around the room if it’s not kept clean.
4. Avoid pollen
Since pollen counts are highest between 5 and 10 a.m., stay indoors during those times. Do the same on hot, dry, windy days when pollen counts are high.
Try not to stop and smell the roses, and avoid wooded areas, too. Admire nature from afar (if you can bear it), and wear a mask if you need to mow the lawn or tend a garden.
If you have kids with seasonal allergies:
- Plan outdoor play toward the evening when possible.
- Have them wear tight-fitting sunglasses to protect their eyes from pollen.
- Create a pollen-free bedroom: Keep the windows shut. Shower and wash their hair after outdoor play before going to bed.
5. Filter the air
Clean air conditioning vents regularly and use a high-efficiency particulate air filter (HEPA) if you have a forced-air furnace. Clean air filters frequently and air ducts at least once a year.
Seasonal allergies: How to know what’s making your child miserable
Kids as young as 2 years old can have seasonal allergies. Some signs that your little one isn’t just dealing with a cold include:
- Stuffiness and a runny nose that produces clear and watery drainage.
- Nose and throat itchiness.
- Eye itchiness and redness.
- Cough that’s worse at night and in the morning (that post-nasal drip will get you every time).
Another telltale sign that a child has seasonal allergies? Face rubbing, says Dr. Hong. “They’re rubbing their eyes and nose. Sometimes kids even get this tiny line, right on their nose, because they push up on it. You’ll see a little crease from all the rubbing.”
Allergy symptoms can even make it hard for your kid to concentrate in school or when playing sports. Parents might also notice that their child is eating with their mouth open (more than usual) because they can’t breathe through their nose effectively, says Dr. Hong.
Allergy relief for kids
Over-the-counter treatments such as saline sprays, nasal steroid sprays and antihistamines can work for children, but Dr. Hong says parents should talk to their pediatrician first.
And monitor how allergy medications make children feel. “Some antihistamines can cause drowsiness,” Dr. Hong says. “It’s best to either give them the medicine at night or choose one that’s made for daytime use to reduce drowsiness.”
When to see your doctor about seasonal allergies
Dr. Hong advises being proactive to manage your allergy symptoms. You or your child should see an allergist if:
- Your allergies are so bothersome that over-the-counter options don’t help.
- Your symptoms persist and last more than seven to 10 days.
- You develop a cough, shortness of breath, wheezing, chest tightness, pain or pressure that lasts longer than seven to 10 days. (It could be asthma.)