America, brace yourself for a longer, stronger allergy season. If you're sniffling and sneezing now, just wait. The worst pollen levels are still to come.
But there are ways to stop suffering and start living.
Right now, allergens are at an all-time high. Twenty-three percent of all Americans fight outdoor allergies.
Pollen from trees, followed by grass in summer, and weed pollen in the fall are the biggest offenders. When we breathe these allergens in, our immune system can over-react, producing a chemical called histamine.
Drew and Brooke Kubovik have allergies, along with their two boys.
"Wheezing, running nose, watery eyes, just a horrible situation," Drew said, describing the misery.
Most enjoyed last winter's mild temperatures and the warmer weather most parts of the country experienced in the early part of spring this year. But that resulted in one of the worse allergy seasons on record.
"For many parts of the country, this is the winter that wasn't," meteorologist Craig Moeller, with WVEC-TV in Norfolk, Va., said.
He added that this year's allergy season caught much of the nation off-guard.
"It's been a very freakishly warm late winter, early spring," Moeller recalled. "And because of that, the pollen kicked up and the season started a little early."
The amount of pollen in the air changes like the weather, so pay attention to your local pollen forecast. Moeller said certain weather events affect the daily pollen counts.
"Certainly the rain will help to wash the atmosphere, it will bring down the pollen levels," he explained. "Winds tend to stir it up, you get more pollen movement and that can create some issues."
Those issues are packing the Chesapeake, Va., office of allergist Greg Pendell, M.D. Pendell's prescription includes making a number of lifestyle changes, like closing your windows.
"We all like that fresh spring air to come in," he admitted. "But what's in that air? Pollen. So keep that out."
"And use your air conditioning," he continued. "The air conditioning helps to cool, dry, and clean the air, and that's good for people with allergies. Same thing with your car -- windows up, air conditioning on."
Also, change your clothes when you come inside because you're likely covered in pollen. Don't forget to wash your skin and hair.
"I always tell my patients to keep an allergy-free zone in their house," Pendell explained. "And it should be the bedroom because that's where you spend the most time and where you sleep."
That means washing your bedding frequently in hot water.
Brooke Kubovik admits the lifestyle changes recommended by her allergist can be costly and time consuming, but she said they are worth it because they really work.
"We change the sheets every week," she said. "Because even though the windows are closed, pollen can still get in just by going in and out of the house."
Using a Neti-Pot or nasal irrigation will also help.These methods use warm salt water to gently rinse away all of the pollen trapped in your nose and sinuses.
Pendell said these devices are found at most pharmacies.
"I recommend at least once to twice daily," he said. "But it's not a drug, it's not medicine, so you can't really overdo it."
Pollen is at its worst from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m., so if possible, wait until later to go outside.
For added protection, Dr. Pendell recommends wearing an N-95 mask, which can be found at most home improvement stores. They're especially useful if you plan on mowing the grass or gardening. However, Dr. Pendell said it's best to pay someone to perform these tasks if you can.
Diet, Supplements, Shots
Believe it or not, diet can also help reduce outdoor allergy symptoms.
Adding Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly fish oil, can reduce inflammation. Cold water fish, such as salmon or tuna, are best. Fish oil supplements also do the trick.
Antioxidant foods, which includes a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, can relieve your allergic symptoms, too. Topping the list are broccoli and blueberries.
Quercitin, found in foods like onions and apples, also helps and is available in supplement form.
Over-the-counter medications sometimes help allergy sufferers, although many people do not find relief from them.
Dr. Pendell said he prefers Claritin and Allegra because they do not cause the drowsiness some other allergy medications cause.
He also cautions against some nasal sprays because people can become dependant on them. Those warnings are listed on the product's package.
If over-the-counter drugs don't relieve your symptoms, see your doctor. Sometimes prescription medications work.
Still, Pendell said by far, the most effective treatment is immunotherapy, otherwise known as allergy shots.
"The allergy shots work by giving a tiny but increasing amount of allergen," he explained. "And it increases the immune system's tolerance, so over time we can decrease or eliminate your symptoms altogether."
Patients start off by getting a shot once a week, then taper-off to once every six weeks.
What's to Blame?
For those who've noticed allergic reactions more than before, you're not alone. Allergies are at an all-time high, but the reason is unclear.
There are three working theories:
- Global warming, which leads to longer allergy seasons
- The theory that society has become too clean. Some scientists believe that our immune systems are malfunctioning because we are not exposed to enough bacteria.
- The opposite theory that society has become too dirty and breathe in too many toxins, such as carbon monoxide and ground level ozone.
"[These are] all sound equally plausible," Pendell said. "All are equally difficult to prove, and I think we're still in the dark about it."
No matter the cause, allergies are getting worse. But don't let that keep you behind closed doors when the weather is nice.
By using these common sense solutions, you can still enjoy the great outdoors.