From when to run to what your ask your doctor, these 14 tips will make this the year you reclaim the outdoors.
Ah, spring. Trees are budding and gentle breezes are blowing— and your nose is running, your eyes are itching, and your brain is fuzzy. As much as you'd love to just curl up with a box of tissues, you shrug it off and soldier on. After all, it's only allergies, right?
While it's easy to trivialize these annoying symptoms—which plague some 36 million Americans—experts say they're nothing to sneeze at. In fact, 80 percent of seasonal allergy sufferers report being less productive because of the condition, costing the U.S. economy an estimated $700 million a year in lost work, according to a study by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
Also called hay fever, seasonal allergies worsen when the weather warms up and blossoming flowers, trees, weeds, and grasses spew pollen into the air. "An overzealous immune system mistakes these harmless particles for intruders and releases inflammatory chemicals called histamines and leukotrines to combat them," explains Thomas B. Casale, chief of allergy/ immunology at Creighton University School of Medicine in Omaha, Nebraska, and president of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (AAAAI). Consequently, your airways and nasal linings swell, triggering congestion, wheezing, and foggy thinking.
Although experts aren't clear why people develop the lifelong condition in the first place, they say genes are partly to blame. While there's no instant fix for seasonal allergies, making a few tweaks to your environment and schedule—like showering at night instead of in the a.m.—can alleviate symptoms. Try these easy everyday strategies and you'll finally have a sniffle-free spring.
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1. Block out allergens: The No. 1 antiallergy move is to keep those triggers at bay, so be sure to leave your windows shut during pollen season. Then run the air conditioner on the "recycle" setting, which filters the air that’s indoors. "That will trap any particles that did sneak inside," says Eric Schenkel, M.D., a clinical assistant professor of medicine at Drexel University School of Medicine in Philadelphia. Also rinse or replace the filter every two weeks to remove any dust and keep it running efficiently.
2. Rethink your bedtime routine: Hopping in the shower in the morning is one way to kick-start your day, but switching to a nighttime routine during the spring and summer can curb your symptoms. You'll wash away the allergens that stick to your hair and face, so they won't rub off on your pillow and irritate your eyes and nose. "At the very least, gently clean your eyelids with a little baby shampoo each evening," suggests Clifford W. Bassett, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of medicine at Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn, New York.
3. Hit the laundry room more frequently: When you get back from a walk or barbecue, change into a clean set of clothes. Then toss the old ones right into your hamper or laundry so you won't track allergens throughout the house. And wash your sheets once a week on the hot cycle: Korean researchers recently found that water heated to 140°F eliminates virtually all allergens, including pollen and dust mites, sneeze-causing organisms that thrive in humid weather.
4. Put pets in their place: Dogs and cats that frolic outdoors can collect pollen in their fur and transport it into your home. During hay fever season, ban your pet from your bedroom or at least keep him off the furniture, says Bassett. Bathe him as frequently as possible or wipe him down when he comes in from the yard with a premoistened cloth, such as Simple Solution Allergy Relief from Pets ($7; petco.com).
5. Clear the air: Almost half of seasonal allergy sufferers are also bothered by irritants such as fragrances and cleaning products, according to a recent study in the journal Indoor Air. To breathe easier, invest in a HEPA air purifier, which filters out aggravating indoor pollutants. A good pick: Honeywell HEPA Tower Air Purifier ($250; target.com).
6. Trim your lawn: Not only will your manicured yard be the envy of your neighbors, the shorter blades won’t trap as much pollen from trees and flowers. (But because mowing can stir up pollen, ask someone else to do it—or cover your nose and mouth with a face mask or handkerchief.)
DURING OUTDOOR WORKOUTS
7. Fine-tune your fitness routine: "You breathe at least twice as fast when you're working out, which means you’ll inhale even more allergens if you exercise outdoors," says Brian Smart, M.D., a Chicago allergist and AAAAI spokesperson. Morning exercisers are hit hardest of all because airborne allergens peak during the early hours, starting at 4 a.m. and lasting until noon. Because pollen rises as morning dew evaporates, the ideal time for an outdoor workout is in the mid-afternoon, says Christopher C. Randolph, M.D., a clinical associate professor at Yale University’s Division of Allergy in New Haven, Connecticut. He notes that where you work out can also matter: Exercising on the beach, an asphalt tennis court, the track at your local high school, or in the swimming pool are better options than working out on a grassy field.
8. Run right after it rains: "The best time to hit the pavement is immediately after a downpour, because the moisture washes away the pollen for up to several hour" says Gillian Shepherd, M.D., a clinical associate professor of medicine at Weill Medical College of Cornell University. But once the air dries, take cover: The additional moisture generates even more pollen and mold, which can hang around for a few days afterward. (Before heading out, check pollen and mold reports on aaaai.org.)
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9. Slip on shades: Not only do wraparound sunglasses shield you from harmful UV rays, they’ll also stop airborne allergens from getting in your eyes. Another way to ward off symptoms: Use allergy-relieving eyedrops, such as Visine-A ($7; drug store.com), a few hours before heading outside. This will combat histamines, which are the compounds that cause your eyes to water and itch.
10. Drink up: Fill up a water bottle or hydration pack to bring on your run, walk, or bike ride. "Fluids help thin mucus and hydrate the airways, so you won’t get as stuffed up," says William S. Silvers, M.D., a clinical professor of allergy and immunology at the University of Colorado in Denver. Then use the rest to rinse off any pollen that’s on your face and hands.
AT THE DOCTOR'S OFFICE
11. ID your triggers: "If you know what they are, you’ll know how to defend yourself against them," says Smart. Request a skin-prick test, in which an allergist applies a man-made version of the potential allergen to your forearm and makes a small prick in the skin so the solution can enter. If you're allergic, a lump resembling a mosquito bite will appear at the site.
12. Give your medication a checkup: While some may find relief with an over-the-counter medicine, such as Claritin, Alavert, or Zyrtec-D, others may prefer a stronger one-a-day prescription tablet, such as Singulair. Ask your doctor for her recommendations, but don’t mix your meds: Following a non-drowsy 24-hour drug with a different p.m. pill that night could lead to dizziness, increased heartbeat, and nausea. "But what's most important is that you take allergy medications as regularly as suggested by a doctor to ward off attacks, rather than when you’re just experiencing symptoms," says Casale.
13. Try a spray: If you find that pills aren't easing your symptoms, your M.D. may prescribe a nasal steroid like Veramyst, Flonase, or Nasonex. "These sprays effectively treat runny noses and watery eyes," says Randolph, who adds that you shouldn't be put off by the word "steroid." "Nasal sprays are extremely safe. The small amount of steroids you spritz into your nose is metabolized quickly, so little—if any— actually enters the body." Use one a few weeks before allergies hit; symptoms will start later and be less severe.
14. Get your shots: If you’re affected by seasonal allergies for more than three months of the year, allergy shots, also called immunotherapy, may be in order. An allergist will inject you with gradually increasing doses of an allergen one to three times a week over the course of up to seven months, which enables you to build up tolerance to the offending substance. (After that, you’ll get the shots once a month for three to five years.) "Shots change the immune system's pathway," says Randolph. "They are effective for a number of years, and they can even prevent the development of other allergies as well as asthma."