Nasal congestion, sneezing, and itchy and watery eyes — for the nearly 50 million Americans with seasonal allergies, these are the true rites of spring.
Recognizing symptoms, minimizing exposure and consulting with your physician about appropriate treatments are all ways to not just survive but thrive outdoors in an allergy season that some experts are already calling the "pollen vortex".
"With warmer weather comes plant pollens and mold that permeate the air and spread," said Anju Peters, MD, a Northwestern Medicine allergist. "Trees, grass and ragweed are the most common, though what allergens are in the air varies by location."
Following an unusually cold and long winter dubbed the "polar vortex," some are predicting this allergy season will be a severe "pollen vortex" that will unleash more allergens than typical into the air. For those with allergies, pollen and mold kick their immune systems into overdrive. Their bodies release histamine and other substances that cause symptoms commonly associated with allergies: itchy or watery eyes, congestion, postnasal drip, sneezing and a runny nose.
"The allergies aren't just a harmless runny nose, but can really impact quality of life," said Peters, who treats patients at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and is an associate professor in medicine-allergy-immunology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. "Recognizing triggers can help people avoid the most severe symptoms."
- Home Protection– When pollen counts peak, shut windows and doors completely. Dust and vacuum frequently.
- Frequently wash clothes and bedding – Take clothes off immediately that you have worn outside, and frequently launder clothes and bedding to reduce allergen impact.
- Visit an allergist– Talking with an allergist can help determine what type of allergens triggers your symptoms. During the visit, the allergist may perform an allergy skin test or check your blood for potential allergens. Allergists can also discuss the use of recent sublingual immunotherapy approved by the Food and Drug Administration for ragweed pollen and grass allergies. Instead of allergy shots, the sublingual immunotherapy is a dissolving pill that can be administered at home.
- Make a Calendar – Once you are able to specifically identify the culprit, create a calendar of your most severe allergy weeks.
There are no cures for allergies but simply lifestyle changes and over-the-counter medications can provide relief. Don't overuse products like sedating antihistamines or oral and nasal decongestants to feel better, Peters said.
"Overusing decongestant nasal spray causes it to lose its effectiveness and could even lead to rebound congestion," she said. "Make sure to speak with your physician about the appropriate use of over-the-counter decongestant products."
Using a neti pot or a sinus rinse to clean nasal passages with saline is one of the most effective ways to clear allergy-causing sinus pressure. Peters cautions that users must use boiled or distilled water and to regularly clean and sterilize the pot.
For those with allergies so severe that over-the-counter medications or at-home treatments are not effective, Peters suggests discussing prescription nasal sprays, allergy shots or the new sublingual immunotherapy with a physician.
"Allergies are a part of life but they don't have to run your life," Peters said. "Work with your physician to find a treatment plan that works best for you and allows you to enjoy the warm weather without allergy symptoms."