When we encounter an allergen such as pollen, animal dander or molds our immune systems launch an all-out response, resulting in wheezing, coughing, chest tightness, shortness of breath, even eczema. In short, our systems overreact, said Weily Soong, M.D., a board-certified allergist and immunologist with the Alabama Allergy & Asthma Center.
Taking longer-acting over-the-counter antihistamines is a good start to managing allergies, as is seeing an allergist/immunologist, Dr. Soong said. But there are also a few simple changes you can make to your routine to outsmart your allergies and take control of your symptoms.
Keep hair, clothes and fur pollen-free
If you suffer from environmental allergies, it’s important to keep pollen from invading your living space. One easy and effective tip is to change your clothes and take a shower — including washing your hair — when you first get home in the evening, said Maxcie Sikora, M.D., also with Alabama Allergy & Asthma Center.
“If you can wash all of that off of you, it will make a huge difference,” said Dr. Sikora, who is board certified in pediatrics, allergy and immunology.
Pet fur can also collect plenty of pollen, so if you have a pet who has the run of the backyard, make sure to brush or wipe it down before it comes back inside, she said.
Pay attention to pollen counts AND air quality reports
If you have allergies and live in an area of the country with lots of greenery and foliage, chances are you have heard of pollen counts, which are a measurement of how much pollen is in the air, including concentrations of tree, grass or ragweed pollen. Pollen counts tend to be elevated in the morning, as many plants emit their pollen between 5 a.m. and 10 a.m., and are especially high on warm, dry, breezy days. If you need to be out during high pollen days, wearing a pollen mask can really help, Dr. Soong said.
In addition to pollen counts, people with allergies or asthma should also pay attention to air quality, Dr. Sikora said. While pollen counts tend to be higher in the morning, air quality may be worse in the afternoon, depending on the humidity and the temperatures of where you live.
On days where both the pollen counts are high and the air quality is bad, consider exercising indoors and avoid doing heavy yardwork or gardening.
“Air pollution is not an allergen, but it’s a strong irritant to the airway, so it can definitely affect people with asthma and allergies,” she said. “It’s important to keep up with air quality in late summer and early fall, depending on where you live.”
Stress and wine may exacerbate allergies
A glass of wine with dinner may be good for your heart, but not your sinuses. Wine contains sulfites which may intensify an allergic reaction or provoke asthma symptoms, Dr. Sikora said.
“You can have a seemingly allergic reaction from drinking wine because it’s triggering symptoms,” Dr. Sikora said. Bacteria and yeast in alcohol produce histamines which can cause allergy symptoms like a stuffy nose and itchy eyes. And drinking a glass or two of wine after a stressful day may only exacerbate allergies at night.
“Stress does a lot of things to your immune system, so it’s not impossible that stress could make what is going on with your allergies worse,” Dr. Sikora said. “Stress affects all part of your body.”
Limit your wine intake and take note if your allergy symptoms worsen after more than a glass of wine a night.
Use Your AC
Spring cleaning calls to mind deep cleaning and throwing open the windows to let in fresh air. But this may be a big “no-no” during high pollen season.
When pollen counts are high, keep your windows closed at night and use your air conditioning. This will cool, dry and filter the air, which helps remove allergens and keeps you breathing easier, Dr. Soong said. The same goes for your car: keep your windows rolled up and the AC on when pollen is high, he said.
Wait until pollen counts are low before you open windows and ventilate your home to prevent any build-up of irritants inside your house.
Take a vacation from your allergies
Allergies can spike at various points through the spring, summer or fall, depending which plants are in bloom. And mold can be worse during warm, humid months. If you are struggling to get your allergies under control, it may be worth taking a vacation to a different area, Dr. Soong said.
But be careful. You don’t want to plan an escape to an area of the country that is also in bloom, perhaps with different pollen that also triggers your allergies. Consider pollen-free areas, such as the beach, as ocean breezes tend to blow pollen inland, Dr. Soong said.
Work it out in the wash
Wash your bedding at least once a week to make sure allergens aren’t accumulating there during peak season, Soong said. The same goes for your dryer — avoid hanging clothes or bedding outside to dry during high pollen season as pollen and other allergens will settle in the fabric.
And if you have a dust mite allergy, Dr. Sikora advises that you use the sanitize setting on your washing machine. That will usually get hot enough to kill any dust mites.
Rachel Zohn is a mom, a wife, and a freelance writer who is striving to find the best way to juggle it all and maintain a sense of humor. She is a former newspaper reporter and a military spouse, so she’s familiar with the stress and anxiety that comes with constant moves and new communities. An insomniac married to an insomniac, she’s spent the last several years on a journey to help her youngest child tackle both migraines and sleep issues. She’s on Twitter at @rachelzohn.