The birds are singing, the sun is out, you can finally take a coat-free walk in the park... and then it hits: the incessant sneezing, itchy eyes, pressure building in the sinuses. Of course, as soon as it's nice outside, it's also the start of allergy season. While we're pleased about May flowers, springtime comes with a major side of suffering for many of us. And with pollen levels already on the rise due to longer growing seasons brought on by climate change, allergy season will only grow bigger, faster, and stronger in the years to come.
So how will you handle the onslaught of an allergy season that now lasts months on end? Sometimes it's easiest to start with figuring out what not to do. Here are seven common behaviors that might actually be making your allergies worse.
1. Avoid that second (... or third) drink.
This may not be the best news you've heard today, but when your allergy symptoms are on the rise, it may be best to skip that evening drink. Alcohol is a vasodilator, which means it increases blood flow and inflammation to areas that are already suffering from allergy symptoms, says Purvi Parikh, M.D., an allergist and immunologist with the Allergy & Asthma Network.
Red wine is often called out as an allergen due to its sulfite content, but Parikh notes that not all people are intolerant to sulfites. Still, even if you're not allergic to sulfites, alcohol still may cause headaches or exacerbate congestion. Red wine isn't the only enemy of allergies—sadly, any type of booze can make symptoms worse.
2. Medicate sooner.
When it comes to allergy meds, be proactive. "A more effective way to manage allergy symptoms can be to begin your treatment regimen before allergy season fully takes hold," says Clifford Bassett, M.D., founder and medical director of Allergy & Asthma Care of New York. While there is no conclusive evidence to prove that it matters what time of day you take your daily dose, getting a jump on allergy season may also help prevent "nasal priming," a.k.a. a greater sensitivity to pollen that can worsen symptoms over time.
3. Don't turn up your nose at neti pots.
If you've ever had a crystal-wearing hippie friend press a neti pot into your hand and claim that it will solve all of your medical problems, you've probably been understandably skeptical about the efficacy of sinus rinses. But the truth is, they work to clean nasal cavities, clear mucus, and soothe inflammation. They really do. Using them is (more than) a little awkward at first, but stick with it and it'll be worth it.
4. Work out in the afternoon or evening.
If you're a rise-and-run kind of person, you should consider changing up your workout routine during allergy season. Hitting the pavement first thing in the morning means exposure to peak pollen time. Parikh suggests exercising indoors—or running in the evening when the pollen count is less. And if you still want to get in the occasional morning run, it's not a bad idea to keep an eye on the daily pollen count to avoid exposure on days with a high forecast.
5. Don't overuse a nasal decongestant spray.
When you can't breathe and your sinuses are filled with so much pressure that your face feels as if it's about to burst, it can be tempting to reach for a nose spray that lets you breathe right away. But it's important to double-check what you're using: Nasal decongestant sprays only treat symptoms temporarily and are not a solution to the problem.
So let's differentiate between the types of nose spray out there, because they can get a bit confusing. There are both steroid nasal sprays and decongestant nasal sprays on the market.
Corticosteroids sprays like Flonase or Nasacort are frequently recommended by doctors, including Bassett. They reduce inflammation, swelling, and mucus in the nasal passages to actually treat seasonal allergies over time. However, these types of sprays take some time to become effective and don't provide immediate relief from symptoms.
Nasal decongestant sprays, however, are nose sprays that work right away to open nasal passages. While they're OK to use for a day or two, studies show that they can be addictive and also make symptoms worse over time. These types of sprays use vasoconstrictors, which means they shrink inflamed blood vessels in the nose. This provides relief from congestion; however, the eventual rebound swelling of the vessels can often lead to more severe symptoms than originally experienced.
When reaching for nasal sprays, be sure to read the label carefully to identify what you're picking up—and be sure you stick to recommended dosages.
6. Use the right type of air filter.
Do you know the difference between an ion and a HEPA air purifier? The difference could affect your allergies.
Ion air purifiers release electrically charged ions into the air to bond with impurities and weigh them down to remove them from the air. The problem is that the particles just sink to the floor of your home without actually trapping or removing anything.
These filters are also linked to the production of ozone as a byproduct. Ozone is a toxic gas that can actually worsen respiratory symptoms. While the production of ozone from ion purifiers is probably not going to kill you, it does generally increase the ozone level in your home to the high end of the EPA's safety chart. Bassett notes that allergists generally don't recommend these types of purifiers because instead of cleaning the air, they can actually make allergies worse.
HEPA purifiers, however, are allergist-approved. These machines suck air through filters that trap impurities like dust, pet dander, and pollen. The clean air is then released into the room. Studies have shown that these types of air purifiers reduce irritants in the air, thereby reducing symptoms, as long as the filters are monitored and changed regularly.
7. Avoid scented candles (and perfumed detergent).
Yeah, they may smell soothing, but there's evidence to suggest that a significant portion of the population is sensitive to fragrances, and that includes more than just candles—cleaning and laundry products can be highly scented, as well. Bassett explains that fragrances are created using dozens of chemicals that can trigger irritation.
So if your allergies are acting up, consider fragrance-free products for your home. Even if you're not normally sensitive to smells, the chemicals behind them could be making things worse.