April Daniels Hussar, SELF magazine
You probably haven't taken your warm boots and cozy sweaters out of storage yet, but one autumn accessory you might already be using is ... Kleenex! Yep -- fall allergy season is already under way. Luckily, we have relief.
"In the Eastern part of the United States, the ragweed season traditionally starts around mid-August and lasts until the first frost," William Berger, M.D., clinical professor of allergy and immunology at the University of California at Irvine, tells HealthySELF. September is peak allergy season for many states, including those in the Midwest; if you're on the West Coast, the season is a little bit later and involves different weeds, like sagebrush, he says.
You may have heard that the drought is making this an especially bad year for allergies, but Dr. Berger says there are many different climate-related factors when it comes to the severity of an allergy season, and there's not really anything special about this year. "Pollen counts can vary from day to day and region to region," he explains. While a lack of rain during the season can mean less relief because the air won't be cleared of pollen, lots of rain early in the year means more ragweeds pollinating earlier. Either way -- no fun!
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And just because you had allergies in the spring doesn't mean you'll suffer the same fate in the fall -- though, says Dr. Berger, it's common to experience both. By the way, Dr. Berger says the term "hay fever" isn't used in the medical community, because it's not "hay" people are allergic to, as was once thought -- it's the mold in the hay, and it doesn't cause a fever! The accurate term is "allergic rhinitis," though Dr. Berger says "hay fever" is a catch-all term for any seasonal allergies.
So ... hay fever allergic rhinitis got you down? Here are Dr. Berger's tips for coping:
Keep your windows closed during allergy season, in your home and when you're driving. As long as you're getting outside on a regular basis, you're probably getting enough fresh air. At home, consider air conditioning with recirculation as an alternative to opening the windows, at least when your allergies are bothering you.
Change your filters. This goes for filters in your forced air heating systems and/or your air conditioners.
Don't dry your clothes outside. Nothing beats the smell of sun-dried sheets, but Dr. Berger says, "The sheets and pillowcases act as a filter and catch all the pollen!"
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If you've been outside for a big chunk of the day, take a shower and wash your hair. No need to go to bed with your allergens.
When it comes to medicinal help, Dr. Berger says drugs such as Claritin and Zyrtec block receptor sites for histamines that cause allergy attacks, so if you're already sneezing, it's too late.
"Histamines cause your allergy symptoms: sneezing, runny nose, itchy nose and congestion," he explains. "Once the histamine has caused this, the antihistamine can't reverse what has already happened." Therefore, most allergy medicines work best when taken preventatively; it's ideal to take them before the season starts, and stay on them daily throughout the season, he advises.
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Additionally, Dr. Berger says, antihistamines won't help with your stuffy nose -- you need a decongestant for that. However, over-the-counter decongestants can come with side effects like sleepiness or increased heart rates, and, because of the abuse potential, are becoming harder to come by (you may have noticed the "D" allergy medicines are locked up behind the counter at your drugstore, even though you don't need prescriptions for them).
"It may be best to see a doctor and ask for an intranasal medicine, which will help all of your symptoms," says Dr. Berger, explaining that prescription nose sprays can help relieve your congestion without side effects, and can be used all season (OTC nose sprays are only meant to be used for three to five days at a time).
If you're really suffering, Dr. Berger says it's worth visiting an allergist, who can treat more than just your symptoms. "These medicines are very effective, but they're not a cure -- they have to be taken on a regular basis," he says, and once you stop taking them, your symptoms come back! If you have severe symptoms, Dr. Berger says an allergist can figure out what your exact triggers are, and then treat them with immunotherapy (aka "allergy shots").
"There's no need to suffer," he says. And remember, no matter what -- with the first frost comes your relief!More from SELF:
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