Spring time is here again. Things are warming up, the flowers are beginning to bloom, the tree buds are opening up – this should be a time to rejoice. However, if you happen to be one of the unfortunate 10% to 30% of the population who suffer from seasonal allergies this will all be tempered with those familiar symptoms. Call it allergic rhinitis or hay-fever, allergy season means a stuffy, runny nose, sneezing and itchy, watery eyes.
The cause of this seasonal misery is well known -pollen – but given the vast quantities floating around in the spring air it is near impossible to avoid. Spring allergies can start as early as February as trees begin to release their pollen. As the temperature rises and the weather improves the pollen count only gets higher reaching a peak towards late spring / early summer. As a rule tree pollen is prevalent through spring with grass pollen taking over in the summer. Many people are only allergic to a particular type of pollen, e.g. ragweed, which is very common. However, a significant number of people are allergic to more than one pollen meaning symptoms can continue throughout the spring and summer.
Seasonal allergy sufferers will often forget the misery over the winter, but it is important to prepare yourself for allergy season if you want to minimize the signs and symptoms. We have compiled a list of top tips to help you survive (and hopefully even enjoy) the spring / summer allergy season.
1. Start treating before symptoms appear
One of the most effective strategies for minimizing your seasonal allergy symptoms is to preempt them. This means starting your regimen of anti-allergy medicines early in the season before the symptoms actually take off. This helps counter the priming effect which occurs when small amounts of particular pollens are released at the start of the season. These early allergens put the immune system on alert and prime it to go into overdrive as soon as they encounter not only pollen, but a whole range of allergens.
Getting in there with your antihistamines or corticosteroid sprays can damp down the allergic reaction and mean reduced symptoms for less time.
2. Check the local pollen count and plan when you go out
Keeping an eye on the local pollen forecast and / or knowing when the pollen that affects you is at its most prevalent can help you keep a lid on symptoms. Often with allergies the best medicine is avoiding the cause and this is exactly what is recommended here.
At its simplest this means staying indoors when the pollen count is high. However, there are other factors that can help keep pollen exposure to a minimum such as the weather. Unfortunately, the lowest pollen count occurs on rainy, overcast and still days. On the other hand hot, windy days are worst; the good news is that leaves hot, calm days as OK!
Time of day also has an effect on how much pollen is airborne. Levels tend to be highest in the morning from around 5am to 10am. Pollination is also high just after sunset.
3. Keep the air indoors pollen free
If you are going to make an effort to avoid pollen outdoors then it makes sense to also keep it to the absolute minimum indoors. There is no miracle cure here and the most effective measures you can take are keeping windows closed at peak pollen times (morning & evening) and regular vacuuming with a HEPA filter fitted cleaner.
Further steps depend on your home setup. If you have air conditioning use it, but make sure the filters are kept clean. In addition everyone can benefit from using an air purifier to filter pollen out of the air in the bedroom.
4. Change your clothes when you come inside
This is really an extension of the tip above. If you have been outside then it is likely pollen will have become stuck to your clothes ready to be brought into your home. Therefore, one recommendation is that you change your clothes when you come in. This is particularly important if you have been working in the garden where you are likely to be proximity to allergens.
It also makes sense to take a shower after a day outdoors as pollen will have become attached to your skin and particularly your hair. This then ends up on your pillow giving you a second round of exposure during the night.
Whilst we are on the subject of clothing it is a good idea to not hang your laundry outside during allergy season as it acts as a magnet for pollen.
5. Wear sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat outdoors
No this is not a cunning disguise. This practical bit of advice is an effective way of reducing the amount of pollen that gets blown into your face and particularly eyes. Along with the incognito look it should help avoid red, itchy eyes.
Taking this a step further you could wear a HEPA filter mask and goggles. This is the best option when there is no avoiding allergens, such as if you have to mow the lawn or pull up weeds.
6. Nasal irrigation
Nasal irrigation is simply rinsing the inside of your nose, generally with a sterile saline solution. Whilst this sounds fairly unpleasant, and it is the first few times, you quickly get used to it.
The principle is fairly simple; you are washing the allergens right off the sinus membranes before they can begin to cause irritation and all the symptoms we associate with seasonal allergies.
Several products are available for nasal irrigation, including aerosol sprays but the most popular are the simple ‘Neti pot’ type. Resembling a miniature squeezy, plastic watering can, these little devices have been shown to much reduce symptoms when used over a 3 to 6 week period.
It is worth noting that the instructions for these devices should be closely followed and only sterile water used. There have been cases of severe brain infections occurring where contaminated water has been used.
7. Eat healthy
Whilst this is good advice any time of year it can be particularly beneficial when your immune system is under attack – or as in the case of allergies, when the immune system is attacking you. One study (Allergy UK) found that people eating a healthy diet experienced less severe symptoms. A balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables is ideal, although it is worth noting some otherwise healthy foods can actually aggravate symptoms. These include; apples, bananas, tomatoes, stoned fruits and melon.
Foods rich in omega 3 and 6 are also recommended as these have been shown to reduce inflammation – which is exactly what happens when you have an allergic reaction. Omega 3 and 6 can be found in oily fish, nuts and seeds.
Green tea is also potentially helpful as it is a source of natural antihistamines.
8. Try alternative therapies
There are a number of natural remedies that are claimed to help relieve or treat the causes of seasonal allergies. Whilst the clinical jury is still out on many of these there are plenty of people who swear by them.
One Swiss study found extracts of the shrub butterbur to be as effective as antihistamines for treating hayfever. It also had the benefit of not causing drowsiness like many conventional allergy medicines do. However, other studies have been less convincing on the merits of butterbur.
Spirulina is another natural treatment for hayfever. This dried blue-green algae works by stopping the release of histamine, the main chemical in allergic reactions. Again studies are not conclusive.
Another popular form of alternative treatment for allergic rhinitis is acupuncture. Again there are both studies showing it is effective or makes no difference. However, whatever the case there is little harm in trying these alternative therapies and many people claim long lasting, positive results.
9. Get an allergy test
Know your enemy… If you know what you are allergic to then you are much more able to avoid it. With seasonal allergies, if you can pin it down to a particular pollen type then you will know pretty much when this is going to be a problem. Therefore you can start taking any medications in advance and not take any more than you need.
The allergy test used to identify what triggers your seasonal allergy will generally be a skin prick test. This quick and painless test is performed by an allergist and works by placing small samples of the suspected allergen on your skin and then making a scratch on the same spot. Up to 25 allergens can be tested in this way with those you are allergic to showing up as raised, red patches.
10. See your doctor
Whilst this might be the first thing some people think of others suffer for years without getting expert help. Over-the-counter medications are effective in controlling symptoms for many people but for some this just isn’t enough. The good news is that there are further options and you can discuss these with your doctor or allergist.
As mentioned allergy tests can be useful in identifying the exact cause of your allergic reaction making it easier to effectively avoid. Another option are so-called allergy shots, or allergen immunotherapy.
Also referred to as desensitization this treatment works by actually exposing you to tiny amounts of the allergen in a series of injections. This allows the immune system to ‘get used’ to the allergen and reduce the reaction until it no longer causes symptoms. Some courses of immunotherapy can be delivered as tablets, dissolved under the tongue.