Spring is here, and you know what that means: no more marshmallow coats, no more wiping out on icy sidewalks, no more 48-hour “Monk” marathons on frigid weekends. But for nearly 36 million Americans, throw-open-the-windows season comes with a major buzzkill: allergies. And natural allergies are only getting more severe. Allergies to pollen, ragweed, and other common airborne triggers have doubled in the past 20 years — a 5 percent per decade increase since the 1970s — clogging up even those who've always been sniffle-free. Here are the three reasons your tissue box needs replacing more often — and what really remedies allergies.
1. Allergy seasons are longer. "Hay fever is typically caused by trees in the spring, grasses in the summer, and ragweed in the fall," explains Paul R. Epstein, M.D., associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School. But thanks to global warming, our growing seasons are lengthening. "In some states, spring is coming 10 to 14 days earlier than it did 20 years ago," says Kim Knowlton, Dr.P.H., a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council's Health and Environment program. And that trend is likely to continue.
2. Pollen is growing out of control. In case you've erased ninth-grade bio from your brain, here's a recap: To grow, plants require sunlight, water, warmth, and carbon dioxide. But these days they're getting way more of those last two than they need. "Ten years ago we thought, OK, more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere means more energy for plants, so they'll grow better," Epstein says. Weeds (such as ragweed), however, aren't merely flourishing; they're reproducing like jackrabbits. And there's not just extra pollen circulating around your schnoz — the CO2 overload has also led to a kind of superpollen that's more allergenic, so that just a teeny amount can get your nose running.
3. Allergens are invading your body more aggressively. Pollution and smog add ozone and billions of diesel particles to the air, and pollen and pollution are not a good combination. "Pollen grains hitch a ride on these particles, which carry them deeper into your lungs, where they can get lodged inside," Epstein says.
Allergy help: Your breathe-easy battle plan
Step 1: Crush the culprits
Strapping on a gas mask and inflating the sterilized bubble that will soon be your new abode? Stop, put down the bicycle pump, and take these easy steps first.
Check the forecast. Find your area's pollen, mold spore, and ozone levels at the sites of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology or the public-service organization AirNow. On days when the Air Quality Index is above 150 (100 if you know you're allergy- or asthma-prone), stay behind closed doors as much as you can.
Keep windows shut on bad air-quality days. If things get stuffy, "consider running an air conditioner with a good filter, which traps allergens from outside air," says Jeffrey Siegel, Ph.D., associate professor in the department of civil, architectural, and environmental engineering at the University of Texas. "Just change the filter often, and avoid devices that emit ozone, like ion-generating air purifiers."
Make a costume change when you come inside. That way you won't trek pollen and dust all over your house after gardening or hiking. On laundry day, wash your grubbiest duds in hot water (140˚F) to kill 100 percent of allergy-causing dust mites and most pollen. (Run regular loads on warm then rinse in cold water twice to kill at least 65 percent of dust mites.)
Slip on some shades. Do you spend the spring months looking like an extra in Harold and Kumar's last adventure? Sunglasses can clear things up by keeping pollen off your lashes and lids.
Don't be so rough on yourself. A 2007 study published in Trends in Immunology found that scrubbing with harsh, abrasive soaps and other products can strip away a layer of protective cells on your skin and actually allow allergens to penetrate.
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Step 2: Pop a pill
All that wheezing occurs when your immune system starts to treat harmless substances like pollen, dust, or pet dander as if they're sinister invaders armed with WMDs. Your body's defense is to produce powerful antibodies, which glom onto your cells and start churning out histamine. Histamine keeps the allergens from burrowing further into your body — shutting them out with inflamed nasal passages, expelling them with sneezes, or washing them away with watery eyes. But allergy treatments can interrupt the chain reaction — or even stop it before it starts.
Take an antihistamine at the first sign of a sniffle if you're prone to allergies. "Even nonprescription meds [like Allegra, Claritin, and Zyrtec] can relieve most people's symptoms by blocking the effects of histamine," says Linda B. Ford, M.D., director of the Allergy and Asthma Center near Omaha, Nebraska. "And they're safe to use long-term."
Try a new pharm-free solution if you're pregnant or if regular allergy meds make you fall asleep at your desk. Chloraseptic Allergen Block ($15 for 150 applications, drugstore.com) is a clear gel you apply to the outside of your nostrils. "The gel attracts the particles and then traps them before they can enter your nose," says allergist Paul Ratner, M.D., medical director of Sylvana Research, which spearheaded clinical trials for the product.
See your doctor for allergy testing if OTC meds don't cut it. "First-time allergy sufferers usually chalk up symptoms to a cold, since the symptoms — congestion, itchy eyes — are similar," Ford says. "But if you still feel miserable after a week, you need a new diagnosis." A skin test can determine what's causing your allergies so you can get the best course of treatment. You may need prescription antihistamines or a steroid nasal spray, which works by decreasing swelling inside your nostrils.
Ask about allergy shots if you're looking for a permanent solution. "Injecting tiny amounts of an allergen over a period of time will build up your tolerance to the substance," Ford says. It's a long process — shots take three to five years to reach peak effectiveness — but the benefits are usually long-lasting. Needle shy? The FDA is reviewing clinical trials on a course of immunotherapy drugs that dissolve under your tongue. "They've been used in Europe for several years, but the jury is still out on whether they're as safe and effective as the injections," Ford says.
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