From pets to pollen, here’s what you need to know to stifle the sniffles — and the best remedies for annoying allergies.
Cats, Pollen, Peanuts: Allergies Explained
If the mere thought of spring makes your eyes itch, your nose run, and your chest tighten, join the club. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, up to 50 million Americans are plagued by seasonal allergies every year. But don’t run out to the corner drugstore to stockpile tissues, eyedrops, and nasal spray just yet. We found the best traditional and natural remedies to tackle your worst symptoms, plus super easy-to-follow tips from the experts on how to allergy-proof your home. And that’s nothing to sneeze at.
Outdoor allergies are triggered by pollen from grass, weeds, and trees, as well as from mold (surprise, it’s not just in your bathroom and basement). The three pollen-heavy seasons are mid to late spring (tree pollen), late spring to summer (grass pollen) and late summer (weed pollen, predominantly ragweed). However, these can vary depending on which area of the country you live in, explains Bruce Dobozin, MD, coauthor of Allergies: The Complete Guide to Diagnosis, Treatment, and Daily Management (Plume, 1999). Mold tends to rear its head in the spring, summer and, especially, the fall. Pet dander has the dubious honor of causing both outdoor and indoor allergies year-round.
Indoor allergies are caused by dust mites, mold, cockroaches, and pet dander. Seasonal changes can increase their severity.
Food allergies occur when the immune system has an abnormal response to a particular food. The most common triggers are milk, soy, wheat, seafood, nuts, and eggs. Unfortunately, there’s no cure for food allergies — you just have to be careful to avoid the individual foods and products that contain the allergens.
Find Your Best Remedy
Symptom: Itchy Eyes
Best Remedies: Antihistamine eyedrops and pills block histamine, one of the substances that causes itchy, watery eyes, according to Pamela Georgeson, MD, an allergist at the Kenwood Allergy and Asthma Center in Chesterfield Township, Michigan. Many antihistamines cause drowsiness, but over-the-counter Claritin is considered the least likely to do so. If OTC remedies don’t work for you, make an appointment with your doctor, who can make further treatment recommendations.
Symptom: Stuffy Nose
Best Remedies: Intranasal cortico-steroids, a.k.a. nasal spray, and oral decongestants work best. Prescription corticosteroid nasal sprays such as Nasonex and Flonase reduce inflammation, swelling, and congestion in the lining of the airways. They also prevent the release of inflammatory chemicals that bring on a stuffy nose, explains Dr. Georgeson. Some over-the-counter nonsteroidal sprays, including NasalCrom, also block these chemicals and reduce symptoms.
Decongestants shrink the blood vessels, which decreases the amount of fluid that leaks out. They come in liquid and tablet form (for example, Sudafed) or as a nasal spray, and are available over the counter as well as by prescription. Don’t use an OTC decongestant nasal spray, such as Afrin, for more than three days in a row or your congestion may get much worse, which could lead you to become dependent on the medication.
Symptom: Runny Nose
Best Remedies: Oral antihistamines head off histamine, one of the culprits in this case.
Symptom: Wheezing and Coughing Caused by Allergic Asthma
Best Remedies: Inhaled bronchodilators such as albuterol open up the bronchial tubes (air passages) of the lungs and work within minutes. If you experience these symptoms frequently, try a daily treatment that prevents them before they strike, such as inhaled corticosteroids, which stop cells from releasing substances that trigger your breathing problems, according to Dr. Georgeson.
Leukotriene antagonists (such as Singulair) are prescription medications that can reduce symptoms by blocking the action of leukotrienes — a substance that can cause airway inflammation.
Allergy shots can decrease your sensitivity to allergens and relieve symptoms, even after treatment ends. This involves a consultation with an allergist, who will expose you to small amounts of different allergens to identify which one’ll receive injections containing increasing amounts of whatever you’re allergic to.
Natural Treatments That Work
How It Can Help: Vitamin C acts as an antihistamine, according to Glenn Rothfeld, MD, medical director of WholeHealth New England in Arlington, Massachusetts, and author of Natural Medicine for Allergies: The Best Alternative Methods for Quick Relief (Rodale Press, 1996). “It inhibits the histamine response, which makes your blood vessels swell and produce fluid, causing itching, wheezing, and swelling,” he says. You can safely get up to a total of 2,000 milligrams of vitamin C daily through food (citrus fruits and red peppers are good sources) and a supplement.
How It Can Help: B5 is also a natural antihistamine. You can take up to 500 mg of vitamin B5 daily.
How It Can Help: An antioxidant found in plants, quercetin may help reduce inflammation in the airways and prevent the release of histamine, which causes congestion, according to Dr. Rothfeld. Quercetin comes in pill form, and you can find it at most health-food stores. (It’s also found in plant-based foods, including apples, red and purple grapes, cherries, and onions.) Dr. Rothfeld suggests that people with acute allergies take 300 to 600 mg three times daily. Those with milder allergies can take 100 to 200 mg.
How It Can Help: The theory behind acupuncture is that an imbalance in the body causes symptoms, and acupuncture restores equilibrium. Allergies occur when the immune system overreacts; acupuncture may balance the immune system to prevent this response, says Dr. Rothfeld. You’ll probably need to do a series of about 6 to 10 sessions.
Reduce Indoor Allergies
First, visit the allergist to find out which allergens give you grief. Then, target your efforts.
For Mold: Try to keep the humidity down to at least 40 percent or lower; anything higher can promote mold growth. Central air conditioning and heating units and/or a handheld device can measure levels. “A dehumidifier can dry out damp basements, and a fan can help by circulating air in the bathroom,” says Dr. Georgeson.
For Dust Mites: Avoid using feather pillows and down comforters, and put airtight encasements on your box spring, mattress, and pillows, suggests Dr. Georgeson. “If you have children, buy hypoallergenic stuffed animals, or put their favorites in the freezer for 24 hours, which will kill the mites.” It’s also better to have hardwood floors rather than carpet, which is an allergen magnet and difficult to clean. If you do have carpeting, Dr. Dobozin recommends cleaning it every six months to a year with acaracide, a chemical that kills dust mites. (It’s a moist powder that you apply and then vacuum off; carpet-cleaning companies also offer this service.)
For Pets: Make your bedroom off-limits to them — or at least keep them off your bed. It’s the room you probably spend the most time in, so keep it as allergen-free as possible.
For All Allergens: use a freestanding air purifier with a HEPA air filter in living rooms and bedrooms. Research has shown that these are particularly good at reducing pet-allergen levels and improving breathing symptoms such as coughing and wheezing. In addition, keep windows and doors closed to prevent outdoor allergens such as pollen from floating in. If you have central heating and/or air conditioning, consider installing a central filtration system that removes dust and allergens. Again, look for models that use HEPA filters. Experts also recommend using vacuums that contain HEPA filters.
The 3 Biggest Allergy Myths
Myth: It’s possible to outgrow any type of allergy.
It’s more likely that a mild allergy will disappear than a severe one. Often what happens is that your symptoms subside and flare up throughout your life, but they usually don’t go away for good, says James T. Li, MD, chairman of the allergy division at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
Myth: Frequently hanging out with your pets will make you less allergic to them.
Sorry to break the news, but the only way to become desensitized to pet dander, or to stinging insects, pollens, dust mites, and mold, is by going for allergy shots. These are given in controlled doses designed to increase your tolerance to the substances that provoke your symptoms, according to Dr. Li. Shots are usually given monthly for three to five years.
Myth: If you don’t have allergies by the time you’re an adult, you never will.
Most allergies do show up for the first time in childhood, but you can develop a seasonal or food allergy at any age, says Dr. Li.