5 Strategies to Cope with Seasonal Allergies

Photo: Adam VoorhesBy Amanda Schupak

Polar bears and beach dwellers aren't the only ones who should be worried about global warming: It turns out the 35 million Americans who suffer from seasonal allergies are in harm's way. "There are clear projections that, as atmospheric temperatures and levels of greenhouse gases continue to rise, the pollen season will start sooner, last longer, and hit harder," says immunologist Leonard Bielory, MD, who's heading up a program funded partly by the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate the impact of climate change on allergies. In fact, according to Bielory's research, pollen counts may double by 2040 as higher levels of carbon dioxide trigger plants to produce more of the airborne particles. And with elevated temperatures bringing earlier thaws (witness 2012, the hottest year on record in the United States), conditions are ripe for a prolonged sneezing season. But take heart: These five science-based strategies can help stifle the symptoms.

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Act early.
If pollen count levels in your area reach ten or above for three days in a row, start using a prescription nasal steroid spray, says Linda Cox, MD, president of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology. (Use the National Allergy Bureau's pollen tracker.) The steroids in the spray block the production of chemicals that cause two common allergy complaints: nasal swelling and congestion. The meds take a while to kick in, so even if you feel fine, it's smart to begin treatment. "Once symptoms start and inflammation sets in, it's harder to reverse," Cox says.

Clear the air.
Keeping pollen out of your home is impossible, but using the right air purifier may reduce the amount you breathe in. High-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters remove over 99 percent of pollen, dust, and mold. But shop wisely--the air purifier industry has ballooned in recent years, and impostor filters have made their way onto the market. Avoid products labeled anything other than just plain HEPA (some bill themselves as "HEPA type" or "99 percent HEPA") to make sure you're getting the real thing.

Go outside at the right time.
Since staying shut in all spring isn't an option, venture outdoors during midday, when chances for flare-ups are at their lowest. Trees and weeds typically release pollen in the morning, while grass does so both morning and night. Wind matters, too: On dry, blustery days, pollen can cover great distances, meaning that even if counts start out low in your immediate area, pollen that's blown in from hundreds of miles away can still cause an attack.

Eat more yogurt.
A study in the Journal of Nutrition found that people who ate seven ounces of yogurt daily for one year reported fewer allergy symptoms than those who didn't. Other studies have shown that probiotics often found in yogurt may relieve congestion from birch and cedar pollen if consumed regularly. Researchers suspect that by exposing your body to "good" types of bacteria, you may increase your immune system's tolerance for allergens.

Protect yourself for seasons to come.
Allergy shots are the closest thing we have to a cure. They introduce small amounts of an allergen into your system so that your immune cells become desensitized and your allergic reactions diminish. It's a big commitment--a full course of shots typically involves once- or twice-weekly injections at the doctor's office for one to six months, followed by monthly booster shots for up to five years. But relief may soon come in the form of a pill or a liquid drop. Two types of tablets made from grass extracts have performed well in clinical trials; one pill dissolved under the tongue daily for three years is as effective as a full course of allergy shots. And an oral liquid for ragweed allergy is currently in the FDA's approval pipeline. All three treatments may hit the market within the next two years.

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