Living with Seasonal Allergies
If you have seasonal allergies, in spring and summer, it's the airborne pollen particles that get you. In the fall, it's usually mold, which grows on leaves. Seasonal allergies--also called allergic rhinitis or hay fever--are caused by an overreaction of your immune system to a substance (pollen) that's harmless to most people.
During this overreaction, your body releases histamines and other substances that cause local inflammation, leading to the symptoms that are all too familiar to many people:
- Runny nose
- Itching in the eyes, roof of mouth, ears, mouth and skin
Preventive care--ways to avoid pollen
Seasonal allergies can affect you at any time in your life. Even if you didn't have them as a child, you could develop them at some point in adulthood. The first step to take if you have seasonal allergies is prevention--avoiding exposure to the allergen.
You can avoid exposure to pollen and minimize your symptoms a great deal during the season by taking the following advice:
- Stay inside in the morning. That's when pollen levels are highest.
- If you have to be outside, wear a face mask designed to filter out pollen.
- Keep windows closed and use air conditioning--if you have it--in your car and home.
- Don't hang clothes outside to dry.
- When you come inside, take a bath or shower right away and wash your clothes
- Try to avoid other elements that can irritate your allergy symptoms, such as insect sprays, tobacco smoke, air pollution, fresh tar and fresh paint.
- Try to get someone else to mow your grass and do yard work.
Some people try to avoid seasonal allergies by moving to a completely different part of the country. Someone who lives in the northeast may move to the southwest, for example, to get away from the vegetation that's causing the problem. That can give you temporary relief, but most people go on to develop new allergies where they live.
Treatments for seasonal allergies
If your symptoms don't improve and they interfere with your ability to work or go to school, it's time to see a doctor. Your primary care doctor may provide the treatment, or you may be referred to an allergist. An allergist is especially helpful when it comes to educating you about your allergy and teaching you about prevention and treatment.
There are many different kinds of treatment for seasonal allergies. Generally, the first type that doctors recommend are antihistamines. Some antihistamines cause drowsiness, but in recent years, researchers have developed antihistamines that cause fewer and fewer side effects. There are some available over the counter and some by prescription. Your doctor will recommend medications that are most appropriate for you.
If antihistamines don't seem to be effective, your doctor may recommend a steroid nasal spray as well. This, in combination with the antihistamine, can very often treat symptoms quite efficiently.
Another treatment option is immunotherapy. This entails having a series of allergy shots. You do need to know exactly what you're allergic to in order to get this kind of treatment. Allergy shots can reduce symptoms effectively and they can reduce your need for medications.
Alternative therapies for seasonal allergies
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, which includes herbal treatment, acupuncture and t'ai chi, illness results when your body's energy is stagnant, blocked and/or out of balance. Treatments are designed to restore that balance.
There's some evidence that acupuncture can alleviate the symptoms
of seasonal allergies. Some practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine also
prescribe Chinese herbs in conjunction with acupuncture. Read
More information about acupuncture.
Additionally, there are some alternative treatments that are worth trying for symptom relief if you've experienced side effects from some of the more common medications, or if these medications simply haven't worked well for you.
Natural medicine practitioners have used butterbur, a plant native to Europe, Africa and Asia, to treat the headaches and coughs caused by asthma, allergies and infections. A study published in 2005 compared 300 adults who were healthy but who had seasonal allergies. They were divided into three groups. One received butterbur extract that that provided 8 milligrams of an active chemical from the plant (called petasine) three times a day; another group received 180 milligrams of the antihistamine fexofenadine, which is marketed as Allegra or Telfast; the third group received a placebo (sugar pill).
At the end of two weeks, the people in the butterbur and antihistamine groups experienced a significant improvement in their allergy symptoms, while those in the placebo group did not. Researchers still don't know whether long-term use of butterbur is safe, or whether it's effective for non-seasonal allergies. Additionally, it's important to speak with a practitioner who has a lot of knowledge about herbs if you're interested in butterbur, because butterbur contains some chemicals that need to be extracted properly in order for it to be safe to take.
The stinging nettle plant grows virtually all over the world. It has anti-inflammatory properties that can help relieve allergy symptoms in some people. The stinging nettle products that you would buy at a store are usually made from roots and leaves. It can be bought in capsule form, as a tea, as dried leaf and as a tincture (a solution of the herb in alcohol). You can buy stinging nettle in a health or whole foods store.
Quercetin is a nutritional supplement--an antioxidant that's plentiful in the skins of apples and red onions. It's offered in therapeutic doses in health food and whole foods stores. There's evidence that quercetin can help relieve the symptoms of seasonal allergies by blocking the action of histamines.
Quick facts about allergies
- Pollens are the male cells of flowering plants. Most pollens from bright flowers don't cause allergic reactions. It's the pollens from trees, grasses and low-growing weeds that trigger allergy symptoms. These particular pollens are light and easily become airborne. They travel especially easily on dry, windy days.
- If one parent has allergies, there's a 50 percent chance that their child will have allergies. If both parents have allergies, there's a 70 percent chance that the child will have allergies.
- The National Allergy Bureau™ of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, which reports current pollen and mold spore levels to the media, maintains a web site you can check yourself at http://www.aaaai.org and click on the Pollen Counts tab at the top. As a general guide, tree pollen allergies strike in late winter to early spring, grass allergies can strike from spring through summer, and ragweed typically strikes in the fall.
- Asthma can be a serious complication of allergy. That's one reason why it's important to treat your allergy symptoms.
- Most doctors recommend starting your allergy treatment about three weeks before your symptoms usually begin.
- If you decide to try alternative allergy treatments, don't mix them with your traditional Western medications without talking with your doctor first.
The American Academy of Asthma, Allergy and Immunology; Bastyr University Center for Natural Health; Phytotherapy Research (2005;19:530-7); The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine; The National Institute of Asthma, Allergy and Immunology