From ragweed pollen to dust mites to mold, we've got the scoop on all the gross (yet avoidable) fall allergens making you sick—and how to avoid 'em
Spring allergies may get all of the attention, but it's time to wake up and smell the roses—er, pollen. The fall season can be just as bad for the 50 million Americans who suffer from some form of allergies—and you could be suffering and not even realize it, explains Purvi Parikh, M.D., an allergist and immunologist with the Allergy & Asthma Network.
Why are fall allergies so sneaky? "Symptoms can be very similar to the common cold, so often allergies are misdiagnosed as colds or sinus infections and thus inappropriately treated," says Parikh. (Next up: Flu, Cold, or Winter Allergies: What's Taking You Down?) Even people who haven't experienced allergies in the past could be suffering, since allergies change and develop over time (and changing hormones can play a role too).
There are a few differences to be on the lookout for: A cold should resolve itself in about a week, but allergies tend to last throughout the entire season, explains Christopher Hobbs, Ph.D., director at Rainbow Light. While a cold can come on at any point, allergies will usually start at the onset of the season. Look at the tissue when you blow your nose—your mucus will be clear if you have allergies, but it's usually yellowish if you're dealing with a cold. And while a cold may start with a sore throat and may be accompanied by a low-grade fever or body aches, recurrent "colds" that aren't associated with a fever are likely allergies.
If it is in fact fall allergies you’re suffering from, the most common fall culprit is ragweed, a wild plant that grows pretty much everywhere, but especially on the east coast and in the midwest, Parikh explains. Ragweed blooms and releases pollen from August to November, but it’s in the air until the first frost. And unfortunately, there's no real way to entirely avoid ragweed pollen—it can travel for up to 50 miles.
Dealing with severe allegies? Preventative therapies such as steroid/antihistamine nasal sprays can help stop symptoms before they're full-blown, or you can discuss allergy shots with an allergist, which will make you less reactive to the pollen so you won't need to rely as heavily on medicine over time, Parikh explains. For the rest of us, there's good news: We've rounded up the subtle ways you're being exposed to allegens, plus tips on how keep pesky symptoms at bay.
1. You start your day with an outdoor run.
We’re big proponents of morning workouts, and there’s nothing greater than taking in the crisp fall air on a run to get your day off on the right foot. But if you’re a victim of fall allergies, morning is the worst time to be outdoors. Instead, opt for a studio class in the morning and take your jog in the afternoon or the evening when pollen levels are lower, explains Robin Wilson, an ambassador for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) and author of Clean Design: Wellness for Your Lifestyle. (Just don't forget your Reflective Workout Fear!)
2. You walk through your house with your shoes or coat.
Simple enough. When you get home, take off your shoes and coat immediately and leave them in your front hall closet so you don’t track the pollen you’ve picked up outside all over your house.
3. You’re eating these foods.
Hate to break it to you, but food can mimic allergens. If you’re allergic to ragweed, you might also be allergic to fruits and veggies like bananas, cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon, cucumbers, and zucchini, and even chamomile tea and sunflower seeds, explains Wilson. Pay attention to what you're eating and how you feel afterwards, and if your symptoms are severe enough, head to an allergist.
4. You’re not eating these foods.
There are certain foods that can help with fall allergies. Pineapples are high in the enzyme bromelain, which has an antihistamine affect, and cinnamon, ginger, strawberries, blueberries, and tomatoes are all great anti-inflammatory foods, Wilson says.
5. You open your windows to take in the fresh air.
Letting in the crisp fall air is lovely, but if you suffer from fall allergies, you're also letting in all those allergens that are making you feel so crappy. So keep both your home and car windows completely closed, Parikh says.
6. You’ve retired your sunglasses.
When you think sunglasses you might automatically think summer, but they’re also essential for protecting your eyes from allergens than can cause major irritation, Wilson says. (Not to mention, it'll help ward off wrinkles too!)
7. You avoid vacuuming like the plague.
According to every allergy expert and doc we talked to, you need to be vacuuming your carpets and upholstery regularly. Period. In the worst cases, you might even want to consider ditching your carpet altogether and investing in hardwood floors (or pay for steam-cleaning), since many allergens settle into the carpets, Hobbs explains. Same goes for curtains. When in doubt, just vacuum!
8. You think it isn’t cold enough yet for a hat.
Even if your ears are perfectly fine sans hat, wearing one is actually key when it comes to minimizing the affects of fall allergies, since your hair can be a magnet for pollen—especially if you use hairspray or gel, Wilson says.
9. You've been spending too much time enjoying the foliage.
We love jumping into a big mound of leaves as much as the next kid, but mold is another big trigger for fall allergies and piles of damp leaves are prime breeding grounds. Blech. You should also avoid raking leaves, mowing the lawn, and working with peat, mulch, hay, and dead wood, Parikh says. If you must do yard work, wear a mask!
10. You turn on the heat for the first time without doing this…
Cleaning the air vents is a must to ensure you aren’t pushing dust and dirt into your house. Luckily, the right air filter can actually grant allergy suffers almost total relief, even in the worst part of the season, says Hobbs. Many that are available will attract all of the pollen, dust, dust mites, and mold spores, leaving your home nearly allergen-free, he explains.
11. …Or this.
The same goes if you have a steam radiator. Make sure that bad boy is properly cleaned so it isn't pooling water, which can cause a mold issue if it’s backing up into your walls or floors, Wilson advises. (More on that here: Allergy Symptoms? There Might Be Hidden Mold in Your Home.)
12. You're buying these flowers.
Beautiful fresh cut flowers are the best. But depending on the allergens you’re sensitive to, your favorite farmers market purchases could be harming your health. Chrysanthemums, dahlias, golden rods, baby’s breath, sunflowers, gardenias, jasmine, narcissus, lavender, and lilac are all popular fall plants that trigger allergies, Wilson says. Opt for flowers that don’t bud as much (think: tulips) or indoor flora like a rubber plant, snake plant, or ficus tree that can clean the air in your home. (Trendy and good for you?! Win-win.)
13. You can't remember the last time you washed the dog.
It's a chore, sure, but bathe your dog frequently (especially if they're outdoor animals or sleep in bed with you!) to make sure Fido doesn't bring in the allergens you're working so hard to keep out of the house.
14. You aren’t taking care of business in the bedroom
We’ve put it off long enough, but it’s time to talk about dust mites, another major trigger for fall allergies (second only to pollen). Not to be confused with bed bugs, dust mites are microscopic bugs that feed on human skin and live on our sheets, clothing, carpet, upholstery, and more. Most people are actually allergic to the feces and carcasses of dust mites (those particles you see floating in the sunlight), Wilson explains. Gross. Avoid breathing them in by following the rule of threes: Every three weeks, wash the zippered cover on your pillow; every three months, wash your actual pillow; and every three years, replace your pillow. (Wilson’s own home line for Bed Bath & Beyond features a pillow with a fabric cover that protects your pillow from dust mites, mold spores, pet dander, and other microscopic allergens.) You should also have a dust-proof cover on your mattress itself, and be sure to wash your linens in hot water—at least 130° to 140°F to kill dust mites—weekly if you aren’t already, Parikh says.
15. You're dusting wrong.
Use a damp mop or rag to remove dust at least once a week. Never use a dry cloth, since it stirs up mite allergens, Parikh says. And it may seem excessive, but she also advises wearing protective gloves and a dust mask while cleaning to reduce exposure to dust and cleaning irritants. (It'll be worth it!)