Seasonal allergies? ‘You don’t have to be miserable’
If you’ve been dealing with itchy eyes, a runny nose, sinus pressure, sneezing, congestion and headaches for the past few weeks, you’re already well aware that it’s allergy season.
The main culprit at this time of year is wind-borne tree pollen, according to Nicholas Hartog, MD, a specialist in pediatric and adult allergy and immunology with Spectrum Health Medical Group.
Thanks to the unseasonal warmth we experienced in February, trees started pollinating about two weeks early this year, lengthening the allergy season, Dr. Hartog said.
Around mid-May the trees should be done pollinating, bringing welcome relief to many allergy sufferers—but not to those who are also allergic to grass pollen, which starts flying about the time tree pollen settles down.
And then in mid-July, when grass pollen counts taper off, weed pollen takes to the wind. You know, ragweed. That season carries on well into the fall.
“Once we hit the first hard freeze … people will start to get better,” Dr. Hartog said. “So a lot of people wait for that. The hard freeze in the winter is their best friend.”
In addition to pollen, mold is the other environmental allergen that persists throughout the warm season.
Spring and summer allergy sufferers don’t have to surrender to their symptoms and wait out the season, Dr. Hartog said. Both adults and children can use these strategies to keep symptoms under control:
- Keep the air conditioning on and the windows closed. “Especially don’t have your windows open at night because, for a lot of the plants, their peak pollination time is about 5-6 a.m.,” Dr. Hartog said. “They release the most pollen right before sunrise.”
- For the same reason, stay indoors as much as possible in the early mornings. If you’re a runner, avoid morning runs during pollen season.
- If you have a dog that spends time outside, remember that they bring pollen inside on their fur. Bathe your pets more frequently during allergy season.
- Take a shower to rinse the pollen from your skin and hair after spending time outdoors. Showering in the evening will keep pollen off your pillow, giving you a better night’s sleep.
- Check the pollen and mold spore levels via the National Allergy Bureau.
- Take a daily over-the-counter antihistamine, such as Allegra, Claritin, Xyzal or Zyrtec, or their store-brand equivalents. For children, follow the dosing instructions on the package. Tip: Save money by buying these medications in bulk at a retailer like Costco or Sam’s Club.
- Start taking your daily antihistamine before your allergy season begins, to let the medication build up in your system. “It’s easier to get ahead of it than to play catch-up,” Dr. Hartog said. “I typically tell my patients to start their antihistamine on Valentine’s Day or March 1, just because it’s an easy day to remember and it’s before the season.”
- Use a non-prescription steroid nasal spray such as Flonase or Nasonex to decrease congestion. If these don’t work for you, your doctor can prescribe another type of nose spray or decongestant.
- Use eye drops containing the active ingredient ketotifen, available both in both prescription and non-prescription strength.
Dr. Hartog noted that antihistamines and nasal steroids work best if used every single day. These medications have no reported long-term effects, he said, making them safe for patients with outdoor and indoor allergens to use year round.
If these daily over-the-counter treatments don’t work for you, then it’s time to see your doctor or an allergist, Dr. Hartog said.
“If you’re still having symptoms, your quality of life is still suffering, you’re feeling miserable, there’s plenty of things we can do,” he said, including giving allergy shots, which have the potential to cure allergies by modulating the immune system.
The doctor’s main message?
“You don’t have to be miserable.”