7 Smart Ways to Take Control of Seasonal Allergies

You don't have to sneeze and sniff all summer, Philly. Follow these simple, no-med tips from our in-house MD to feel better fast

Illustration by Justin Renninger

We are now in the midst of allergy season, and as many as 15-20% of Americans are suffering from runny noses, itchy eyes, sneezing, coughing, and a host of other irritating symptoms.  My patients are always asking, “What else can I do besides take drugs…they only help so much and have side effects?!” The good news is that there are several things people can do to alleviate allergic symptoms, but the approach is multi-tiered and may include medication as well. (Also, since there is a lot of overlap between allergic symptoms and those of an infection, be sure to confirm with your doctor that allergies are the problem. ) Still, there are a lot of simple changes that can help you weather Philly’s high pollen count.

What causes seasonal allergies?
In simple terms, an allergen (the thing that causes the allergy) is something that is perceived by the body to be a foreign invader, which causes the immune system to launch an attack. In the case of seasonal allergies, the allergens are substances that get released into the air at a particular time of year, such as pollen and mold. The old term for seasonal allergies, “Hay Fever”, was coined before it was really known what was causing the allergic symptoms that coincided with the time of year that hay was cut in the fields.

As part of the allergic reaction, inflammatory chemicals in the body such as “histamines” are released, causing the common symptoms of runny nose, sneezing, etc. Hence, the most common medications for allergies are “anti-histamines”.

How do I know which plant pollens are bothering me?
Often it doesn’t matter, because the treatment is the same unless you plan to do immunotherapy (see below). It is common for children who have severe allergic reactions at a young age to be “skin tested” to determine the offending allergens. The skin test involves pricking the skin with tiny amounts of a variety of possible allergens and seeing which ones become inflamed.  Blood tests can also be performed to measure an individual’s sensitivity to specific substances.  There are debates about the reliability of allergy testing, but it is generally an important aspect of the overall assessment of someone who is struggling with allergies of unknown origin.

What are common medical treatments for seasonal allergies?

The best mechanism for controlling allergies is avoiding the allergen.  But, for those with seasonal allergies to pollen and molds, or other airborne allergies such as dust, total avoidance is impossible.

Immunotherapy is typically utilized for those who have severe allergic reactions.  Popularly referred to as “allergy shots,” immunotherapy involves injecting patients with larger and larger amounts of the allergen during a series of doctor visits in order to minimize the sensitivity to the allergen over time. A second type of immunotherapy utilizes sublingual (under the tongue) therapy.  This mechanism takes advantage of the oral immune tolerance and gradually builds up the body’s resistance to the allergen.

Apart from immunotherapy, there are several medicines (i.e., the anti-histamines referred to above) that block an allergen’s effects on the body.  Both over-the-counter and prescription medications are available to help minimize the body’s symptomatic response.  These medications can be helpful, but some patients experience side effects.

What are some natural interventions to control seasonal allergies?
In addition to allergy shots and medication, there are several other strategies that can make a real difference for the allergy sufferer.  I consulted with the Myrna Brind Center’s allergy expert, Birgit Rakel, MD, to provide the following tips:

1.    Use a HEPA air filter, which is designed to remove very small pollutants and particles. This will minimize exposure to pollen, dust, mold, and other allergens. The bedroom and workspaces are excellent places for air filters. HEPA filters are available at several commercial outlets such as Home Depot as well as numerous online stores.

2.    Eat a diet that minimizes inflammatory irritation in the system. Doing so can add to the body’s resilience. So, reduce your intake of saturated fat (red meat), processed foods and dairy, while increasing your intake of fresh vegetables and foods rich in omega 3 fatty acids.

3.    Sleep on hypoallergenic bedding and consider a rug free bedroom.

4.    Regularly use a Neti Pot to cleanse and irrigate the entire nasal passage.

5.    Try Quercetin as a nutritional supplement – this is an oral supplement that may have anti-inflammatory actions. Making sure you are getting enough omega 3 fatty acids (the healthy fat from fish, flax seed, etc.) either in the diet or as a supplement also is important to keep inflammation at bay. **As with all supplements, discuss with your physician.

6.    De-stress and get enough sleep so that your body has the resilience and strength to weather the allergy season.

7.    Use Euphorbium, a homeopathic nasal spray that supports the immune system and cleans / opens the nasal passages.

Following these simple tips can help you minimize the severity of seasonal allergies and increase your overall wellness.

Dr. Monti is the director of the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and the author of The Great Life Makeover. Read more about him here.

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