Spring has sprung and that might mean so have your allergies. As the bloom begins, the pollen is pushed out into the atmosphere and for many that means the beginning of sniffling, sneezing, coughing, dark circles under the eyes, watery and itchy eyes, and asthma exacerbations.

What causes allergies?

The biggest spring allergy trigger is pollen, a minuscule grain released by trees, grasses, and weeds (hay fever). This tiny grain finds its way through the air and into our noses. For those who are allergic this sends the immune system into high gear. This overdrive mode releases chemicals called histamines into our blood. Histamines are what trigger the symptoms of allergies.

Pollen can travel for miles through the air, spreading a path of misery for allergy sufferers along the way. The higher the pollen count, the greater the misery. The windier days when the breeze picks up pollen and carries it through the air tend to be worse. Rainy days, on the other hand, cause a drop in the pollen counts because the rain washes away the allergens.

How are allergies diagnosed?

If you’ve never been formally diagnosed with spring allergies, but you notice that your eyes and nose are itchy and runny during the spring months, you should see your doctor. A visit to your primary care provider may be all it takes, or it may be more involved and you might need be referred to an allergist.

At the office, skin testing with diluted allergens can be done to induce a small red bump – meaning you are allergic to the allergen.

Just because you are sensitive to a particular allergen on a test, though, doesn’t mean that you’ll necessarily start sneezing and coughing when you come into contact with it.

What’s the treatment for spring allergies?

Allergies can be treated with a number of over-the-counter and prescription drugs:

  • Antihistamines reduce sneezing, sniffling, and itching by lowering the reaction to histamine in the body.
  • Decongestants clear out of the nasal passageways to relieve congestion and swelling.
  • Antihistamine/decongestants combine the effects of both drugs individually.
  • Nasal spray decongestants relieve congestion and may clear clogged nasal passages faster than oral decongestants.
  • Steroid nasal sprays reduce inflammation and symptoms of allergies.
  • Cromolyn sodium nasal spray can help prevent allergies by stopping the release of histamine before it can trigger allergy symptoms.
  • Eye drops relieve itchy, watery eyes.
  • Allergy shots expose the body to gradually increasing doses of the allergen until your body becomes tolerant. This can relieve your symptoms for a longer period of time that oral or nasal allergy medications. They may not work for everyone though.

Even though you can buy some of these allergy drugs without a prescription, it’s a good idea to talk to your provider first to make sure you choose the right medication. Some antihistamines can make you feel sleepy, so you need to be careful when taking them during the day (although non-drowsy formulations are also available). Some decongestants can raise your blood pressure. Many nasal decongestant sprays can make things worse with prolonged use. Don’t use over-the-counter antihistamines and decongestants for more than a few days without talking to your provider.

What about natural therapies?

Some allergy sufferers turn to natural therapies for relief, although the research is mixed on their level of effectiveness. And just because it’s “natural” doesn’t mean it is safe for you.

  • Butterbur. The herb butterbur, which comes from a European shrub, shows potential for relieving seasonal allergy symptoms. Some studies have shown butterbur — specifically a butterbur extract called Ze 399 — to be as effective for reducing allergy symptoms as the antihistamines Allegra, Claritin, and Zyrtec.
  • Quercetin. This flavonoid, which is found naturally in onions, apples, and black tea, has anti-inflammatory properties and has been shown in research to block histamines.
  • Nasal irrigation. Nasal irrigation with a combination of warm water, about a quarter-teaspoon of salt, and a quarter-teaspoon of baking soda may help clear out mucus and open sinus passages. You can administer the solution through a squeeze bottle or a neti pot — a device that looks like a small teapot. Use distilled, sterile, or previously boiled water to make up the irrigation solution. It’s also important to rinse the irrigation device after each use and leave open to air dry.

How to manage spring allergies

It’s impossible to completely avoid spring allergies, unless you lock yourself inside; however, you can ease the symptoms by avoiding and/or reducing your main allergy triggers.

Here are a few tips:

  • Try to stay indoors whenever the pollen count is very high (pollen counts usually peak in the mornings).
  • Keep your doors and windows closed whenever possible during the spring months to keep allergens out. An air purifier may also help.
  • Clean the air filters in your home often. Also, clean bookshelves, vents, and other places where pollen can collect.
  • Wash your hair after going outside, because pollen can collect there.
  • Vacuum twice a week. Wear a mask, because vacuuming can kick up pollen, mold, and dust that were trapped in your carpet.

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