This year, April really was the cruelest month for people with allergies — and the rest of spring is looking pretty mean too.
Blame a perfect storm of weather conditions for the season’s awful allergies, including a snowy, rainy winter in some parts of the country that led to an abundance of tree and grass pollen; a sudden shift from wintry to warm weather that encouraged the pollen’s release; and windy conditions that sent particles airborne, where they enter our noses, throats, and eyes and trigger symptoms that range from congestion, sneezing, and itchy eyes to headaches, diarrhea, and even depression.
Indeed, pollen and mold spore counts hit all-time highs in certain parts of the country, making people prone to seasonal allergies even more miserable than usual, and even setting off allergies in people who usually don’t get them. “It’s been a difficult and intense spring for people with allergies,” says Mitchell R. Lester, MD, president of the New England Society of Allergy.
The five worst cities for allergies this spring are Knoxville, Tenn; Louisville, Ky; Charlotte, N.C.; Jackson, Miss., and Chattanooga, Tenn., according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation, which uses an algorithm that includes airborne pollen and mold counts, and the number of allergy medications taken and allergy specialists available in each city.
Seasonal Allergies on the Rise
Aside from this season’s unique weather conditions, the incidence and severity of allergies (which are an overreaction of the immune system to harmless substances, like pollen or mold) seems to be increasing for other reasons too. According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the prevalence of allergic rhinitis has increased substantially over the past 15 years; now 10 to 16 percent of U.S. adults are estimated to have allergies, which cost the healthcare system $18 billion annually.
There are no definitive answers as to why allergy rates are increasing. One theory is that climate change has gradually been making allergy season last longer, according to a recent study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Rising carbon dioxide levels allow things like ragweed, fungal spores, and poison ivy to thrive,” says Lewis Ziska, study author and a plant physiologist with the USDA’s crop system and global change laboratory.
Coping With Allergy Misery
So what can you do if allergies are hitting you harder than ever, or for the first time? Here, the best ways to survive the season:
- Determine if it’s really allergies. The sudden swing from cool to warm weather can make it hard to tell an allergic reaction from a cold or virus, particularly if you don’t usually get seasonal allergies. Neil L. Kao, MD, director of research at the Allergic Disease & Asthma Center in Greenville, S.C., says to suspect allergies if your congestion lasts for more than two weeks; if your eyes, nose, and the top of your mouth itch; if your mucus is thin and clear; or if your symptoms seem to get worse after you’re exposed to triggers, such as spending a day at the park or running outside. The absence of fever and aches is another clue it’s probably allergies and not a cold or other virus.
- Head to your drugstore for symptom relief. Your go-to meds may not work as well this year if your symptoms are worse, so you may need to experiment with other kinds, or use multiple drugs, to get relief. Over-the-counter decongestants will help relieve a stuffy nose; antihistamines can tackle sniffles and itching. If you take the indicated dosage and it doesn’t work, it may be that your individual metabolism is a mismatch for that particular medication. “Try switching to other brands and types until you find the right fit and combination,” says Dr. Kao. If you’re really suffering, see an allergist who can prescribe medications that are longer-acting and non-sedating. And if your allergies are severe, consider getting immunotherapy shots for long-term relief.
- Give salt water a go. Not a fan of the way many allergy meds make you feel tired and foggy? Try a saline nasal rinse (either with a neti pot or a spray), which helps clear allergens like pollen from your nasal membranes, minimizing symptoms. Gargling with salt water can soothe a sore or scratchy throat. Do this once or twice a day throughout allergy season to ease congestion.
- Kick off your shoes and work clothes as soon as you get home.Don’t drag allergens throughout your home, where they’ll continue to cause your symptoms to act up. Remove your shoes outside the door and throw your clothes in the hamper and change into something else. Shower at night to wash off any lingering pollen from your body and hair before you get into bed. Have a dog or outdoor cat? Wipe their paws and fur when they enter your home too, since pollen can cling to them.
- Take your workout indoors. Check pollen counts in the morning and try to stay indoors when they’re high. This may mean trading your daily neighborhood stroll for a treadmill at the gym or an exercise DVD in your living room. Pollen tends to be highest in the mid- to late-afternoon, so try to run errands first thing in the morning or after work instead of during your lunch break.
- Get window savvy. If you’re allergic to pollen, keep your windows closed and run an air conditioner. On the other hand, if you’re allergic to indoor allergies like mold and dust, throw the windows open and let in the fresh air, which can help clear allergens from your home.
- Wear a mask for outdoor chores. When you’re tending your garden or yard, a surgical mask can help minimize your exposure to pollen particles. Look for ones marked N95, which means they meet the standards of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health by filtering out 95 percent of particles.
- Take allergy symptoms seriously. You may brush off your nasal congestion or lingering headache as “just allergies,” but the truth is that allergy symptoms can take a big toll on your well-being. If you feel totally lousy, give in to your body: Rest, go to bed early, take a sick day. Overdoing it and running around when you feel awful will only make you feel worse.