Ah, spring, the beautiful time of year when trees and flowers are trying to kill you.
Whether you’ve dealt with seasonal allergies most of your life or you’re just feeling the hellish effects of pollen for the first time this year, there are actually ways to minimize the struggle. BuzzFeed Health spoke with two allergists to get their advice for getting through allergy season without sneezing out your insides.
And FYI: Even though we interviewed allergists for this article, the information below is not a substitute for personalized medical advice.
1. First, here’s how to tell if it’s allergies or something else.
Two of the biggest indicators are when you get symptoms and how long they last. “Most colds start to get better in about three to five days; allergies last for weeks,” Dr. Purvi Parikh, an allergist with Allergy & Asthma Network, tells BuzzFeed Health. They also tend to be seasonal, starting in May or September (depending on what you’re allergic to).
Another clue is itchiness around your eyes, ears, nose, and throat, which is more often a symptom of allergies than a cold. Coughing and chest congestion can be a symptom of either, but a cough related to allergies will more often be a dry cough or tickle, says Parikh. And if you have a fever, it’s probably not allergies.
2. Ideally you want to start taking allergy meds before your symptoms are kicking your ass.
For people who know they get seasonal allergies, it’s usually best to start taking meds in early April. That’s because it’s easier to control your symptoms before the inflammation gets too out of hand.
“It’s always best to be proactive because then you can kind of nip it in the bud before it gets out of control, before you need stronger medication,” says Parikh.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you’re screwed if you’re already suffering and you haven’t started medications. Just take something as soon as possible, rather than waiting until you seriously can’t breathe. So, about that medication…
3. Most people start with an over-the-counter allergy pill, like a long-acting antihistamine tablet.
A 24-hour antihistamine like Zyrtec, Claritin, Allegra, or Xyzal can be used daily during allergy season, and they’re available without a prescription. These will work longer and have fewer side effects (like drowsiness) than something like Benadryl, says Parikh.
But keep in mind that everyone responds to these differently, she says, so it’s possible that what worked for your friend might not do anything for you. If after a few days you’re not noticing a difference, try a different brand.
4. Anything with “D” on the label also contains a decongestant, which experts do not recommend taking for more than a few days.
These contain pseudoephedrine, an over-the-counter nasal decongestant (like Sudafed).
“These are OK to use on an as-needed basis, but the pseudoephedrine on a daily basis can have a lot of negative side effects,” Dr. Nicholas Hartog, allergist and immunologist at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, tells BuzzFeed Health. “Your body gets used to it — needs more and more. Your congestion overcomes it.” Both allergists also warn that long-term use can raise your blood pressure.
5. If your allergies are still bad even with a pill, you can try adding an over-the-counter nasal steroid.
“One of the more common things people don’t take good advantage of are a lot of nasal steroids over the counter,” says Parikh. “They’re very safe.” This includes products like Flonase, Nasacort, and Rhinocort. These are not the same as nose sprays like Afrin, which we’ll get to in bit.
You can use nasal steroids along with an antihistamine tablet to treat nasal congestion, a runny nose, and itchy/watery eyes. Unlike the tablets, these can take up to a week to be effective, so you should start taking them before your symptoms get too bad. There are a few different formulations (some are more of a light mist, while others are more of a squirt of liquid), so you might need to try a few to see what works best.
“What the nasal steroids do are decrease a lot of the inflammation and decrease the allergic mediators coming from mast cells,” Hartog says. They can also help with a sore throat caused by postnasal drip (when a buildup of mucus keeps draining down the back of your throat).
6. But allergists don’t recommend decongestant nose sprays for allergies, because you can get addicted to them.
Nasal decongestants like Afrin can be great in a pinch when you really can’t breathe, but both experts warn against using them for more than three days. Prolonged use can actually make your allergies worse by causing a rebound effect, called rhinitis medicamentosa.
So unless you want to get addicted to nose spray, only use this every once in a while.
7. You can also clear out your sinuses with a neti pot or sinus rinse.
Yes, they look (and sometimes feel) like medieval torture devices, but they really help. While they won’t treat your allergies (since they’re not medicated), they can help rinse the pollen and mucus out of your nose.
The neti pot is more of a slow stream of water and saline solution that goes in one nostril and out the other. If that sounds horrible to you, you might prefer the sinus rinse, which is a squeeze bottle that you squirt up one nostril with a little more pressure, so the whole process is over more quickly. Just make sure you’re only using distilled, filtered, or previously boiled (and then cooled) water.
“It’s not a pleasant thing to do, but if you can do it on a daily basis you really do see a difference,” says Hartog. Full disclosure: This is something that can feel absolutely disgusting, mildly uncomfortable, or incredibly satisfying based on the person. But when allergies are ruining your life, you’ll shove just about anything up your nose to feel better.
8. If you’re super congested, try breathing in some steam before you use a nasal steroid.
If nasal rinses aren’t your jam, breathing in some steam can help open your sinuses a bit, which can be especially helpful right before you use a nasal steroid, says Parikh.
You can try boiling some water, or running super-hot water in the shower, and breathing it in.
9. If you have any coughing or chest congestion, check in with a doctor or allergist.
“Once you start getting symptoms in your chest like coughing or wheezing or chest tightness, consult with a physician,” says Parikh. “You might need an inhaler.”
You might notice this as a dry cough, particularly at night or after exercising. These symptoms could be a sign of an allergic asthma attack, even if you don’t have any wheezing or shortness of breath, so it’s worth getting it checked out so you can get the proper treatment.
“You don’t want to mess with not breathing properly,” says Parikh.
10. For super-itchy eyes, there are also over-the-counter allergy eye drops.
Antihistamine eye drops available at the pharmacy help most people, but if your symptoms are severe, you might need prescription-strength drops, says Parikh.
Hartog also recommends splashing some water in your eyes after you’ve been outside, or laying a cool, wet washcloth over your eyes.
11. And try to avoid wearing contacts during allergy season.
People hate to hear this, says Hartog, but your contact lenses can make your eyes even more irritated during allergy season if allergens get trapped behind the lenses. Opt for your glasses until the pollen retreats.
12. Keep your bedroom window closed overnight, since the majority of pollen blooms around dawn.
We know: Sleeping with the windows open this time of year is so refreshing and wonderful and doesn’t cost $$ like your air-conditioning does. But don’t do it if you suffer from allergies.
“Trees’ peak pollination time is 4 to 6 a.m., right as you wake up,” says Hartog. So it’s really the worst time of day to leave your windows open.
13. And skip the morning runs. Opt for night runs or working out in a gym instead.
Again, dawn is primetime for pollination, which means you don’t want to spend a lot of time running/breathing/existing outdoors.
14. Take a shower and change your clothes as soon as you come inside.
This might seem like overkill, but it’s really not. Showering, washing your hair, and changing your clothes when you get inside are pretty basic practices when it comes to allergy care. “You don’t want the pollen to stick to you all night while sleeping,” says Parikh. And you also don’t want to track that pollen all over your house, furniture, etc.
It’s also not a ridiculous idea to ask your partner or family members to do the same if they’ve been out somewhere particularly covered in pollen — especially if you’re sharing a bed with them.
15. If you have pets that go outside, clean them more often during allergy season, too.
Even if you aren’t allergic to pet dander, your dog or cat could make your allergies worse this time of year if they end up bringing pollen inside your home. Hartog suggests washing pets a little more frequently during allergy season if they go outside, even one or two times a week.
16. Don’t forget about indoor allergies that might be screwing with you too.
Pollen might not be the only thing effing you up.
“Know your indoor triggers,” says Parikh. “Certain things like dust mites, mold, and pet allergies can make seasonal allergies worse.”
Parikh suggests an air purifier in your bedroom if you have pet or mold allergies, though they won’t do much for dust mites or pollen. If you have a dust mite allergy, both allergists suggest buying covers for your bed and box spring and limiting the amount of carpet in your home.
17. When literally nothing is working, check in with an allergist to find out what’s up.
If you’ve tried everything above and you’re still miserable, it’s time to see an allergist. They can test you to see exactly what you’re allergic to, so that you can avoid your triggers as much as possible.
An allergist might also suggest allergy shots if your symptoms aren’t getting better with other treatment and it’s significantly affecting your quality of life. This usually requires weekly shots for the first six months, then monthly maintenance shots. After five years, many people have a lasting effect, meaning no more allergies.
There are also a few FDA-approved sublingual (under the tongue) allergy therapies, says Hartog, which might be an option depending on what you’re allergic to.
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