Fall means pumpkin spice lattes, Halloween—and ragweed season. If you suffer from seasonal allergies this time of the year, you’re not alone. Allergens affect more than 50 million Americans each year. Dee Gouveia, a 48-year-old teacher in Heath, Texas, is one of them. “When my allergies are at their peak, I get itchy eyes, a sore throat and a stuffy nose,” she says. Left untreated, this can cause sinus infections and breathing issues, and in extreme situations Gouveia needs to reach for an inhaler.
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Why Allergies Occur
Allergies strike when a particle, like pollen or pet dander, is inhaled or lands in a person’s eyes. “About 30 to 40 percent of the population has immune systems that recognize allergens as being something bad that attacks the body,” says Alan Goldsobel, M.D., an allergist with Allergy and Asthma Associates of Northern California. For those people, the allergen triggers an allergic reaction. Blame the chemical histamine, says Sandra Hong, M.D., an allergist and immunologist at Cleveland Clinic. Found in the body’s cells, histamine fights the allergens in a sometimes irritating way: “The release of histamine causes those immediate things like a sneeze or getting a really drippy nose,” she says.
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What Allergies Look Like
In addition to sneezing and having a running nose, allergy sufferers may have “congestion, itchy eyes, swelling of the eyes and an itchy nose,” says Goldsobel. Allergens may exacerbate asthmatic symptoms, causing coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath.
Those who are allergic to plants such as ragweed or birch tree may also be susceptible to oral allergy syndrome, where certain raw fruits and vegetables make their mouths itchy. Gouveia tends to avoid melons, cucumbers, carrots and some tree fruits for this reason. “My mouth and throat will become itchy, and I get a sore throat,” she says. Cooking these foods, however, changes their molecular structure. (That’s why some ragweed sufferers may be bothered by raw bananas but can tolerate banana bread.) “Oral allergy symptoms are not life-threatening 99.9 percent of the time, and people don’t need to avoid those foods preemptively,” says Goldsobel. But be aware and avoid them if you have issues.
- Shut your windows and use the air conditioning at home and in the car (recirculate air instead of bringing in air from outside).
- Avoid midday excursions when pollen is at its peak. You can check your area’s pollen counts at pollen.com or the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology’s pollen.aaaai.org.
- After coming indoors, change your clothes and take a shower to wash off irritants.
- Rinse your nasal passages with a saline solution, which flushes allergens out of your sinus cavity.
- Don’t dry clothes outside where they’ll capture pollen.
- Keep pets, who can track pollen indoors, out of the bedroom.
- Try HEPA filters, which can help clear allergens like pollen and mold from the air.
- Encase your mattress in a dust- and mite-proof cover. Wash sheets weekly in hot water and dry on high to kill mites.
- If you’re going to be around a cat or spending time outdoors, take an antihistamine (such as pills, nasal sprays or eye drops) beforehand. Wearing face masks also help protect you. “I have patients who make sure to wear a mask when they cut the lawn,” says Hong.
- For many, allergy shots, which expose you to a small amount of your allergens, gradually building up your tolerance, work well. “Eighty percent of people feel they're really effective in controlling their symptoms,” says Hong. Instead of shots, your doctor may prescribe sublingual drops (applied under the tongue) to take at home that act in a similar manner and can help desensitize you to allergens like grass, ragweed and dust mites.