By John Swartzberg, M.D.
You can thank this unusually warm and wet winter for an allergy season that has arrived early, and with a vengeance. Weather forecasters are predicting a "bigger and badder" allergy season for 2016, which means it's already time to deploy your arsenal of allergy weapons.
Here are four weapons you can use to fight allergies this spring:
Allergy Weapon 1: Knowledge.
First, be aware of what triggers your personal array of allergy symptoms. Early spring is the peak time for tree pollens. Beeches, birches, elms, maples, oaks, and willows are some of the leading culprits. Just when tree pollen starts to ease off, it's replaced by grass pollen in the late spring and early summer. Late summer and early fall mean the onset of weed pollens. Everyone knows about ragweed, but other weeds, such as cocklebur, pigweed, and Russian thistle, can release pollens that trigger allergies, too.
Next, know your local pollen counts. Pollen counts are daily measurements of pollen and mold spore levels taken from counting stations throughout the US. A high overall pollen count doesn't necessarily mean your allergies will be triggered, though; it depends on just what types of pollen are in the air. You may be allergic to elm tree pollen, say, but not birch tree pollen. The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology's (AAAAI) National Allergy Bureau can give you pollen counts for your area, including the leading species.
Want something even more personal and hyper-local? If you search your phone's app store, you'll find customizable apps from sources like weather stations and makers of allergy medications that can send you regular push notifications about pollen levels in your area.
Allergy Weapon 2: Avoidance.
Once you know your personal allergy triggers and have a reliable source of pollen count information, you can make plans that will keep you away from those triggers as much as possible.
First, do your best to stay indoors on days when pollen counts for your particular triggers are high. Dry and windy days are usually the worst for pollen, while wetter weather means the spores are less likely to spread. If you need to do some outdoor work, do it in the evening when pollen counts tend to be lower.
You can also ask for help with outdoor tasks like gardening and mowing lawns. If no one else in your family can pitch in, see if there are any high school kids in your neighborhood who would like to pick up some extra money.
Allergy Weapon 3: Protection.
You can't avoid seasonal allergy triggers completely, of course. They come into your house and car with you and your pets, hitching a ride on clothes and skin and in hair and fur. Battling your allergies means keeping these invasions to a minimum.
During allergy season, takes your shoes off before coming in the house. Leave them on the porch, if possible, or take them no further than the entryway. Everyone who enters your home should remove shoes as well. If you've been working outside, take a shower and put on clean clothes immediately after coming in--and put the "outdoor" clothes" directly in the wash.
To keep your home as allergen-free as possible, avoid the temptation to open the windows and let the fresh spring breezes in. Keep the air conditioner on, with doors and windows shut--yes, even at night. Central air is more efficient than window units at keeping out allergens. Be sure to check the filter and clean or replace it regularly, or you'll just be spreading those triggers around! This also works for your car: keep the windows closed and the air conditioning on "recycle" rather than vent mode.
If you're outside on a high-pollen-count day, you can wear a disposable dust mask or a higher-filtration model (such as N95), available at hardware stores or online. Adjust it to fit snugly, with no air gaps around the edges. You can also try nasal filters, available at many drugstores, which fit inside your nostrils and catch allergens; a recent study found that filters like these significantly reduced sneezing, runny nose, and watery eyes.
Allergy Weapon 4: Medication.
If you've tried all of these strategies and your allergies still make you miserable, your allergist can recommend medications that best fit your needs. Many good allergy medications are now available over the counter, while others--such as corticosteroids that reduce allergy-related inflammation--require a prescription. Most allergy medications come in a variety of forms: pills and liquids, nasal sprays, eye drops, and inhalers.
For longer-acting relief, allergy shots have been shown to be effective in reducing allergy symptoms and preventing the development of new allergies in both children and adults, although they're not recommended for children under five. Some doctors have been reluctant to prescribe allergy shots for older adults, perhaps because of concerns about interactions with other medications. But a new study of people aged 65 to 75 with moderate to severe grass pollen allergies found that immunotherapy reduced seasonal allergy symptoms by 55 percent and the need for medication by 64 percent, with no adverse reactions.
Not thrilled about getting shots? In 2014, the Food and Drug Administration approved three allergy tablet products to treat grass pollen and ragweed allergies. Called Grastek, Oralair and Ragwitek, they contain small amounts of the allergen to desensitize your immune system and reduce the immune response.
Understand your allergies:
John Swartzberg, M.D., is chair of the editorial board of BerkeleyWellness.com and the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.
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