With the official start of spring about six weeks away, for many Americans the start of allergy season is close at hand.
But that doesn't mean the sneezing and discomfort that comes with seasonal allergies has to be close at hand as well. With a bit of planning, effort and common sense, many people can limit their suffering during allergy season - or perhaps even avoid it altogether, says Mark Dykewicz, M.D., professor of internal medicine and chief of allergy and clinical immunology at the Saint Louis University School of Medicine.
"There are a number of simple steps you can take to help relieve symptoms and minimize your suffering when allergy season kicks into high gear," Dykewicz says. "That's good news for many of the millions of Americans who traditionally suffer every year from seasonal allergies."
For the most part, seasonal allergies are caused by airborne pollens - very fine powder released by trees, grasses and weeds as they pollinate and fertilize other plants of the same kind. Molds in outdoor air can also contribute to seasonal allergies.
Although there are warmer regions of the country where outdoor allergens can be present year-round, allergy season generally begins in late winter or early spring and runs through late summer or early fall, depending on a region's particular climate. As the season progresses, different types of pollens are present to trigger allergic reactions, Dykewicz says.
Trees are generally the first to pollinate, in late winter and spring, although some varieties can pollinate later in the season, depending on the region. Trees tend to be followed by the pollination of various grasses in late spring and summer. Weeds can pollinate at different times of the growing season, though the notorious ragweed - prevalent in many areas east of the Rockies - pollinates in late summer and early fall.
Outdoor molds generally reach their highest levels in late summer or fall, though some regions such as Florida can have significant outdoor mold counts throughout the year.
Dykewicz says there are five important things you can do to prevent or relieve symptoms during allergy season when pollen or mold counts are peaking:
1. Use over-the-counter antihistamines for relief. For some people, these drugs are very effective at reducing the classic symptoms of seasonal allergies, including sneezing, runny nose, itchy eyes and, occasionally, scratchy throat. Some of the older-generation antihistamines, such as Benadryl, can cause sleepiness and the impairment of thinking and driving, which people often don't sense. As a result, Dykewicz prefers to recommend more recent formulations that, in most people, cause no drowsiness (Claritin, for example) or less drowsiness (Zyrtec). These perform very well for many people, Dykewicz says.
2. Keep your home's doors and windows closed. You can't completely seal off your home from the outside, but keeping doors and windows closed can help prevent pollens and outdoor molds from entering. When the weather turns nice in the spring and you're tempted to open windows to let in "fresh" air, it may be better to keep them closed and turn on your air conditioner.
3. Limit outdoor activity, particularly in the morning. Avoid being outdoors - especially to exercise - when pollen counts are high, or on windy days when pollen and molds are being blown about. In general, pollen counts are highest in the morning, usually from about 5 a.m. to 10 a.m.
4. When traveling by car, keep the windows up. Closing your car windows helps keep out pollens, dust and mold.
5. Take a shower and change clothes. Pollen can collect on clothes and in your hair, Dykewicz says. So when you've been outside for any significant amount of time, shower and change into fresh clothes as soon as you get home.
And how do you know when it's time to see a doctor for allergies? When you've followed those five steps and you're still suffering, Dykewicz says.
"When you've done all you can on your own and you can't find relief, then it's time to see your doctor," Dykewicz says.
According to Dykewicz, there are a variety of prescription medications that can help reduce or block seasonal allergy symptoms. These include other oral antihistamines; the drug Singulair; and several classes of nasal sprays. Nasal sprays tend to be the most effective at relieving symptoms by helping reduce inflammation and counteracting the allergic response.
And for harder-to-treat cases, Dykewicz says many patients benefit from allergy immunotherapy - a long-term series of shots to desensitize a patient from specific allergens.
"The good news is there's a lot you and your doctor can do to help relieve or prevent suffering caused by allergies," Dykewicz says.