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In some states, spring is coming two weeks earlier than it did two decades ago, which means two more weeks of allergy-aggravating pollen.
updated 5/20/2011 9:09:24 AM ET 2011-05-20T13:09:24

For nearly 36 million Americans, spring 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.

Plus, 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.

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Get a grip on your allergies by crushing your culprits first:

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.

Before you move into the basement, 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 (aaaai.org/nab/index.cfm) or the public-service organization AirNow (airnow.gov). 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.

Another reason allergies are so rampant? 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.

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So 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.)

Don't forget to slip on some shades, too. 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.

Last but not least, 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.

© 2012 Rodale Inc. All rights reserved.

Video: 4 ways you’re bringing allergens in the house

  1. Closed captioning of: 4 ways you’re bringing allergens in the house

    >>> time for "today's home" and ways to get rid of today's allergens that cause you to sneeze and wheeze.

    >> may is national asthma and allergy month. today joe rubino is here to tell us how allergies can sneak inside your home. nice to see you.

    >> this season has been especially difficult.

    >> it's been the worse.

    >> we had a lot of rain and snow and everything is wet and growing.

    >> i thought that would wash the allergens away.

    >> when it is raining, it cleans the air. when it stops raining and everything is wet, we get a lot of growth.

    >> we get a lot of mold.

    >> it's one thing when you have the problem outside but it occurs when you bring it all in the house with you.

    >> in the home there are a lot of allergy problems we need to address all the time. right now if you're outside gardening and in that environment with all that pollen and ragweed, when you get into your home, you bring all those allergens in.

    >> on your clothing and shoes.

    >> should you shower?

    >> first, you should not bring your shoes in. wipe them off or leave them outside. change your clothes if you're coming in and you're done for the day. wash up and clean. our hair.

    >> it's in your hair.

    >> always wash your hair. dogs and cats are outside, they are exposed to all these allergens. they are a double whammy. if you're allergic, now you have a problem also.

    >> do they get allergies also?

    >> i don't think they get allergies to the same extent we do.

    >> what should you do with your carpet?

    >> first when the dog or cat comes in the house, if you can wash them or wipe them off. that's not easy. especially for a cat. trust me, i tried that. one thing you can do is vacuum your carpeting regularly or better off, get rid of it. especially if you have someone in your family or you yourself are allergic to dogs and cats. carpeting has about 100 times more allergens than a regular polished floor.

    >> they are so much easier.

    >> thank you.

    >> if you suffer, you go to a lot of extremes.

    >> kids on the play grounds bring it in the house, obviously.

    >> they are outside playing just as if we were out, your pet is outside or you're gardening. one thing to keep in mind, sand, a sand box could be, i hate to say it, a litter box for cats.

    >> stay inside for the rest of your life.

    >> no, no. you want to go outside. just take care of the problem before you bring it into the home. another problem at home is dust mites . if you're allergic to dust mites , there are a few things you can do. for example, use a cover over pillows, wash your bedding and clothes in hot water. if you have stuffed animals, what do you do with this? one trick is put it in the freezer over night.

    >> really? there is nothing in my freezer.

    >> you might be the only one with room for it.

    >> home renovations. if you're like a lot of us, this time of year you're out there working on your home or we've come through a bad winter in the northeast. a lot of damage to roofs. mold will start to grow in those wet environments that might get in the home. you need to keep the home low humid. use a dehumidifier. if you have mold growth or problems, clean it, disinfectant will kill that mold.

    >> thank you very much, joe.

    >> do what i do and take an allegra. thank you

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