Spring allergy seasons continue to start earlier each year (it was February in 2012), and pollen counts continue to go up. It’s not a fluke; scientists say the effects of climate change are making allergy seasons worse. Research presented at the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology in November 2012 suggests that by 2040, pollen counts are expected to double.
“I do think that the allergy seasons seem to be longer. When winter is shorter and less severe, it means there will be pollens and molds present for a longer period of time,” says Dr. Stacey Gray, an allergy expert at the Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary.
Grass, weeds and trees release microscopic pollen into the air each spring, summer and fall. Inhaling pollen can trigger a reaction of the immune system. It’s known as hay fever. Symptoms vary, but commonly include a runny nose, sneezing, itching and burning or watery eyes. If you have asthma or chronic obstructive lung disease, pollen can increase your risk for flare-ups.
Other floating pollutants in the air can cause allergic reactions, as well, such as mold spores and dust mite droppings, although mites aren’t a seasonal problem, and mold can be a year-round problem in warm climates.
You can find out what you are allergic to by having allergy testing. This is done in a doctor’s office, using either a blood test or a skin test. The skin test involves pricking the surface of the skin and exposing it to allergens. Redness and swelling at a test spot on the skin indicates an allergic reaction.
The medical fix
Once you know which allergen you’re dealing with, you can develop a treatment strategy with your doctor. This usually involves medications.
Antihistamines counteract a protein called histamine, which is released by tissue cells deep inside the skin during an allergic reaction. Over-the-counter (OTC) examples are chlorpheniramine (Chlor-Trimeton) and diphenhydramine (Benadryl).
“Antihistamines like Benadryl are an old standby, but there are several newer nonprescription medications that work well without causing drowsiness, which is one of the main side effects of Benadryl,” says Gray. These include fexofenadine (Allegra), loratidine (Claritin) and cetirizine (Zyrtec). Cetirizine can sometimes still cause some drowsiness for some patients. By prescription, there are now topical nasal antihistamine sprays – azelastine (Astelin) and olopatadine (Patanase) – which can help with sneezing and runny nose.
Corticosteroid nasal sprays are steroids similar to hormones your adrenal glands produce. They reduce inflammation and help reduce nasal congestion, runny nose and nasal itching. These are available by prescription, such as mometasone furoate (Nasonex) and fluticasone propionate (Flonase), and can be used long term.
Nonsteroidal nasal sprays that contain cromolyn sodium (NasalCrom) are available OTC. These target the root cause of symptoms by keeping allergens from reaching cells that release histamine. They can be used long term. However, Gray says the sprays are often not quite as effective as nasal steroid sprays.
Since allergy seasons appear to be worsening, Gray suggests starting medications early, before the allergy season starts.
“For instance, start using a nasal steroid spray a few weeks before the spring allergies begin,” she says.
Fighting allergies with medicine alone may not be enough, says Gray. She recommends minimizing allergens in the house and in the work environment.
“Make sure the air conditioning and heating filters and vents are all clean,” she stresses.
During peak pollen season, close your windows and consider wearing a mask for outdoor yard duties. Better yet, avoid going outside when pollen levels are highest. Gray also recommends using nasal saline irrigations.
“They’re especially helpful to clean the nose after an exposure to an allergen like working in the yard,” she says.
Remember, too, that certain irritants in the environment can make allergy symptoms worse, like exposure to cigarette smoke and pollution. Gray suggests avoiding such exposure if possible.