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Springing into allergy season

What a winter we’ve had this year! I am sure looking forward to spring. Unfortunately, spring warmth also brings seasonal allergies.

Every spring, more than 40 million North Americans begin sniffling and sneezing, triggered by pollen grains being released by blooming trees, grasses, and weeds.

If you have allergies, breathing in this pollen makes your immune system overreact and release antibodies to fight this ‘foreign invader,’ releasing histamines into your blood, causing watery eyes, runny nose, sneezing, coughing, itchy eyes and nose, and/or dark circles under your eyes. As the pollen count rises, your allergy symptoms become more severe.

To keep your allergic symptoms as mild as possible, plan to limit your exposure to pollen. Track the current local pollen count through an online search or local weather forecasts. These official sites usually categorize pollen counts as ‘low,’ ‘medium,’ or ‘high,’ based on the ratio of allergen grains/cubic meter in the air.

When pollen counts are high, consider taking some proactive measures. Start taking allergy medications immediately, before feeling allergy symptoms. Keep pollen out of your living space; close the doors and windows until the count drops.

Avoid early morning outdoor activities when the pollen count is highest. Maintain low humidity with a dehumidifier. Keep indoor air cleaner by using air-conditioning, and high efficiency filters in your furnace, and air conditioner. Use a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter in your bedroom. Vacuum your floors often, using a vacuum outfitted with a HEPA filter. Vacuum the cab of your rig, too, including the seats.

When possible, adapt outdoor activities according to the weather forecast. Enjoy rainy days – they tend to reduce pollen counts, since rain pushes pollen out of the air to the ground. Avoid extended time outside on breezy days, which typically have a higher pollen count as the wind lifts and carries more pollen through the air.

On your days off, avoid gardening tasks that stir up allergens, like lawn mowing and weeding. (Wear a dust mask, if necessary). When your gardening is done, quickly remove your outside clothes and shower the pollen off your skin and hair. Avoid hanging laundry outside to dry, since material acts as a pollen trap.

When allergy symptoms appear, doctors often recommend a variety of over-the-counter and prescription drugs. Antihistamines reduce sniffling, sneezing, and itching by lowering the amount of histamine produced by the body. Decongestants relieve congestion and swelling by clearing mucus out of the nasal passages. A combination antihistamine/decongestant delivers both

Nasal spray decongestants offer faster relief in clearing clogged nasal passages than oral decongestants because the spray is absorbed directly into the swollen nasal tissues. Steroid nasal sprays reduce inflammation as well. Cromolyn sodium nasal spray, used before allergy symptoms appear, may help prevent hay fever by stopping the initial release of histamine. Eye drops can effectively relieve itchy, watery eyes.

Although these over-the-counter allergy drugs are available without a prescription, it’s best to talk to your doctor to choose the best one for you. Read the label carefully before making your selection since some antihistamines make you drowsy.

On the road, using a non-drowsy formula is vital. If you need an over-the-counter antihistamine and/or decongestant for more than a few days in a row, see if your doctor will recommend a better treatment option.

Some treatment options include a prescription medication or nasal spray, allergy shots, and/or even under-the-tongue immunotherapy tablets. Allergy shots and immunotherapy tablets allow you to develop a tolerance for the allergen by exposing your body to gradually increasing doses of that allergen. These may relieve your symptoms for a longer period of time than traditional oral and nasal allergy medications. Allergy shots may even reduce your symptoms for a few years.

Occasionally, airborne allergens trigger asthma, a condition that causes the airways to constrict, making breathing difficult, often leading to wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath. If these symptoms appear, seek medical attention immediately.

If you are looking for a more natural therapy, you might consider butterbur – an herb from a European shrub. Some studies have shown that the butterbur extract Ze 399 may reduce allergy symptoms as effectively as Allegra, Claritin, and Zyrtec. Or, try quercetin – a flavonoid with anti-inflammatory properties that appears to block histamines. 

Quercetin is found in onions, apples, and black tea.

Or, try nasal irrigation – a combination of warm, distilled or sterile water, about a quarter teaspoon of salt,
and a quarter teaspoon of baking soda used to flush out mucus and open sinus passages. Be aware that any spring allergy treatment labeled “natural” may require monitoring, since some herbal remedies can cause side effects and may react with medications you’re currently taking. It’s best to consult your doctor before taking natural remedies.

Now is the best time to take steps to avoid seasonal allergies reactions – before they spring upon you. 


Karen Bowen is a professional health and nutrition consultant, and she can be reached at

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