Enjoy all the pleasures of spring without the drippy, sneezy, energy-sapping downside.
The Pollen That Sets You Off
Tree and grass pollens cause spring sniffles; ragweed is a fall allergen, so you can worry about that come Labor Day. March through June, as branches bud and blossom in much of the country, trees (particularly oak, maple, birch and elm) produce pollen big-time, according to Beth Corn, M.D., an allergist at Mount Sinai Medical Center. Grass-allergy season gears up mid-May and peaks in June; Bermuda grass, bluegrass, rye and other lush grasses are the main culprits. Knowing which pollen sets you off can help your physician customize your treatment. Dr. Corn recommends seeing an allergist, who will run skin or blood tests. You may also want to track when symptoms flare and subside, and share your detective work with your doctor.
"You might sneeze more than twice in a row with a cold, but more commonly, that's a symptom of allergies," says William Berger, M.D., clinical professor of allergy and immunology at the University of California at Irvine. "When an inhaled allergen gets into the nose, it releases histamines that irritate nerve endings. Sneezing helps clear out the irritants," he adds. Your serial sneezing may be joined by a stuffy or runny nose that shows no sign of abating after a week of misery—a cold rarely lasts that long. Allergies aren't associated with fever, Dr. Berger says. One last clue: Mucus linked to allergies is usually clear, but colds and flu produce yellow or green gunk due to the infection. Gross but good to know.
Sleep In, Shower and Sneeze Less
For allergy sufferers, the worst time to exercise outdoors is between 5 A.M. and 10 A.M. "There's an explosion of pollen after the sun comes up, because trees and grass need warmth and moisture to pollinate," Dr. Berger says. Counts drop off by noon and are lowest in the evening. After your run, jump out of your clothes and shower. "It's especially important to wash your hair—it's a pollen magnet," Dr. Berger says. That way, you won't transfer pollen to your pillow. Does your schedule demand you exercise before work? Check conditions at Pollen.com and hit the gym on high-risk mornings.
Choose a Beach Vacation
Thanks to the shore's lack of vegetation and that purifying breeze, Dr. Berger says that you might feel better at the beach. The arid Southwest may also bring relief, but one caveat: People moving there from the East have brought nonnative, allergy-aggravating plants with them. The muggy South is sniffle central. "Foliage is heavier in the Southeast, and the humidity can trap the pollen so it stays in the air longer," Dr. Berger explains. If you can't be near the coast, try visualizing the ocean for a few minutes to lower your anxiety. Even everyday stressors such as a job interview can make you hyperresponsive to allergens up to a day later, a study from The Ohio State University at Columbus finds.
Living With Pets, Carpet and Clutter
All three of these factors increase allergens in the home. Clutter attracts dust, about 60 percent of which originates from tracked-in soil and airborne particles like pollen, according to a study from the University of Arizona. "Carpeting is a reservoir for pollen because the tiny granules cling to carpet fibers," says James Sublett, M.D., clinical professor of allergy and immunology at the University of Louisville. Your pooch picks up pollen outside. Wipe down pets with a damp towel at the door, clean surfaces with microfiber cloths (which prevent dust from going airborne), and use a HEPA vacuum cleaner or a cyclonic model, such as a Dyson, to depollenize carpets, suggests Dr. Sublett, who is also chair of the indoor environments committee for the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Leave shoes and coats by the door—or at least set out a mat so visitors can wipe their feet.
Turn on the AC
Assuming your air conditioner has a good filter, it will keep allergens at bay. "Even running the fan in your AC unit with the windows closed will help keep out pollen," Dr. Berger notes. (Do clean or replace the filter every two months.) As for window fans? "They bring in so much pollen, you might as well pitch a tent outside," he says. Skip the humidifier, too; moisture traps pollen in the air and promotes mold, another instigator.
Close Your Car Windows
"Fresh" air can harbor millions of pollen grains during the spring. And motoring along at 40 to 60 miles per hour, your car sucks them up like a vacuum. "You'll be hit with more pollen per second in your car than in your home," Dr. Berger says. Close the windows and sunroof, then switch on the AC or put the vent on recirculate to avoid drawing in outside air. Vacuum your car regularly; pollen gets comfy in car carpets and upholstered seats.
Keep Your Boudoir Clean
"Work on your bedroom," Dr. Berger advises. "You spend at least a third of your life in there." Remove curtains, books and plants, all notorious dust collectors. Wash sheets and pillowcases weekly in hot water, don't dry them on the line, and consider allergyproof cases for your box spring, mattress and pillow. "These are also good ways to help keep your bedroom free of dust mites, which can trigger allergy symptoms," Dr. Berger says. He also suggests running a freestanding HEPA air cleaner with the windows closed. (Homedics and Honeywell make versions.) Avoid ionic cleaners. "They can generate ozone, a known lung irritant that can aggravate allergies," he warns.
Choose Your Cushy Desk Chair
Choose a leather or vinyl chair. "Surfaces you can wipe are easier to keep free of allergens," Dr. Corn says. You probably won't have much say in ventilation, but if you have an office with a door you can close, consider a tabletop air cleaner. Happily, flowers shouldn't send you diving for the tissue box. "Allergies are caused by wind-pollinated plants. In most cases, insects pollinate flowers," Dr. Berger says.
Beware of Fruit
Some fresh produce can trigger an itchy mouth or throat because its chemical makeup is similar to pollen. "The body mistakes the fruit for pollen and creates a mild local reaction," Dr. Sublett says. If you're allergic to trees, beware apples, peaches and pears. Grass allergy sufferers could react to melons and celery. As for honey, you may worry it could sicken you because it contains pollen. Dr. Sublett calls this idea a myth: To "bee" honest, the sticky stuff probably won't affect allergies at all.
Take Meds Before Season Begins
Drugs such as Claritin and Zyrtec block receptor sites for histamines that cause allergy attacks; if you're already sniffling, it's too late, Dr. Berger says. Start one to two weeks prior to the season (e.g., early May for grass pollen), and take meds regularly, including one day before you'll be around a trigger, like a golf course. If suffering persists, a doctor can prescribe a nasal spray or shots. But follow our advice and that might not be necessary: "For most people, simple life changes can reduce symptoms and may even prevent allergies," Dr. Corn says. See you in the park.
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