Spring is here: April showers, May flowers, and those dreaded seasonal allergies. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but this year’s allergies may be especially bad. Find out what causes sneezes and sore throats, and learn how to keep them from putting a damper on any day.
Ever make it through the snowy winter, only to be bogged down by sniffling, sinus infections, and itchy eyes? It's common—seasonal allergies, also called allergic rhinitis or hay fever, affect up to 50 million people in the U.S. And when the season strikes, the sick days start flowing: In one large study, 55 percent of workers reported calling in sick because of allergies Economic impact of workplace productivity losses due to allergic rhinitis compared with select medical conditions in the United States from an employer perspective. Lamb, C.E., Ratner, P.H., Johnson, C.E., et al. PCA Occupational Medicine, Salem, VA. Current Medical Research and Opinion, 2006 Jun;22(6):1203-10.. Sorry boss!
Pollen is the most common season-related allergen, while dust, mold, and good ol’ Fluffy can bug us indoors any time of year Clinical practice guideline: Allergic rhinitis. Seidman MD, Gurgel RK, Lin SY, et al. Otolaryngology: Head and Neck Surgery, 2015 Feb;152(1 Suppl):S1-43. . But here’s a fun fact: These allergens are usually harmless—it's our immune systems that are to blame, mistaking them for dangerous intruders. In defense, our bodies release histamine, which dilates blood vessels and causes eyes to water, skin to itch, and sinuses to congest. (Yeah, we’re pissed too.) But the reason not everyone deals well with the springtime blues? Reacting to allergies also depends on genetic makeup Genetic aspects of allergic rhinitis. Davila, I., Mullol, J., Ferrer, M., et al. Servicio de Inmunoalergia, Hospital Universitario, Salamanca, Spain. The Journal of Investigational Allergology and Clinical Immunology, 2009;19 Suppl 1:25-31..
Most scientists are still baffled as to why we have allergies. But one study did find a molecule in chickens that acts as a fossilized version of the molecule that causes humans to react today Avian IgY binds to a monocyte receptor with IgG-like kinetics despite an IgE-like structure. Taylor, A, Gould, H.J., Sutton, B.J., et al. Randall Division of Cell and Molecular Biophysics, King's College London, New Hunt's House, Guy's Campus, , UK. The Journal of Biological Chemistry, 2008 Jun 13;283(24):16384-90. Epub 2008 Apr 9.. This shows that the evolution of allergic reactions began nearly 160 million years ago! And these reactions isn’t just a quick battle. Most people experience the sneezing and itching almost immediately after exposure, but congestion and fatigue can kick in up to eight hours later (surprise!) Clinical practice guideline: Allergic rhinitis. Seidman MD, Gurgel RK, Lin SY, et al. Otolaryngology: Head and Neck Surgery, 2015 Feb;152(1 Suppl):S1-43. . And we can’t just snooze off the symptoms—doctors have found that allergies also hinder our quality of sleep Altered performance in attention tasks in patients with seasonal allergic rhinitis: seasonal dependency and association with disease characteristics. Trikojat K, Buske-Kirschbaum A, Schmitt J, et al. Psychological Medicine, 2015 Apr;45(6):1289-99..
Your Action Plan
Climate change—and the subsequent higher temps—leads to premature pollen release, which means our immune system has jump-started its action plan to react against the allergens. Luckily, we can have our own action plan to battle back:
1. Keep it cool.
Shut the windows and turn up the air-conditioning to keep out pollen Home air-conditioning, traffic exposure, and asthma and allergic symptoms among preschool children. Zuraimi, M.S., Tham, K.W., Chew, F.T., et al. Department of Building, School of Design and Environment, National University of Singapore, Singapore. Pediatric Allergy and Immunology, 2011 Feb;22(1 Pt 2):e112-8.. Avoid using a fan that can whirl around dust and pet hair too!
2. Avoid the wind.
3. Trim the grass.
4. Slide on the shades.
We weren’t kidding when we said wear shades year-round. The eye-protection ain't just for the sun though—it’ll also help keep pollen out of your eyes Protective efficacy of sunglasses on the conjunctival symptoms of seasonal rhinitis. Ozturk AB, Celebioglu E, Karakaya G, et al. International Forum of Allergy and Rhinology, 2013 Dec;3(12):1001-6..
5. Hit the showers.
Remember to shower before snoozin' to rinse off any allergens that may be stuck to the skin and hair.
6. Clear those sinuses.
Try clearing up those nasal passages with a little salt water. Also called nasal irrigation (lovely), the liquid will flow through the nasal cavity and wash out allergens and mucus Nasal irrigation for chronic sinus symptoms in patients with allergic rhinitis, asthma, and nasal polyposis: a hypothesis generating study. Rabago, D., Guerard, E., Bukstein, D. Department of Family Medicine, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, Madison, WI. Wisconsin Medical Journal, 2008 Apr;107(2):69-75.. Some experts recommend a neti pot for easy pouring, yet others warn of its dangers. Just make sure to speak with a doctor first before using.
7. Eat smart.
Some foods may even help fight spring allergies. Trying filling that diet with nuts, apples, fish, red grapes, and tomatoes. Can’t hurt to try!
8. Hit the drug store.
Try some OTC remedies like eye drops or oral antihistamines. Some alternative solutions, like an extra dose of vitamin C, may help too! Natural treatment of perennial allergic rhinitis. Thornhill, S.M., Kelly, A.M. Northwestern Health Sciences University College of Chiropractic, Bloomington, MN. Alternative Medicine Review, 2000 Oct;5(5):448-54. Just beware of nasal sprays: Some people have reported becoming addicted!
Originally published April 2012. Updated April 2015.