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Sneeze Season

If you battle seasonal allergies, then you understand how congestion, a runny nose, headaches, and other bothersome symptoms can make you miserable.

Michele Chiappetta
February 28, 2020

Spring officially begins this month. Lawns get lush, and flowers bloom with color. Temps warm up, and we start to get outside more often. It’s a great time of year, but if you’re one of the millions of people who have seasonal allergies, spring also means grabbing the tissues and eye drops to deal with sneezing, congestion, a runny nose, itchy eyes and other symptoms that can interfere with your daily life.

If you’re suffering from hay fever or allergic rhinitis, you’re not alone. One study from 2012 reported that a whopping 17.6 million adults were diagnosed with hay fever within the previous year. To make that worse, Tulsa usually ranks in the top 10 of most allergenic cities in the U.S. Unfortunately, our warm climate can stir up pollen even in winter, meaning many of us don’t get a break on those allergy symptoms.

“Seasonal allergies have a huge impact on folks,” says Dr. Michelle Montalbano, a board-certified allergy, asthma, and immunology specialist at the Carey Clinic in Tulsa. “They can have a huge impact on how someone feels and how they function. Allergies can lead to lost productivity at work. Over 2 million absences in school days annually are attributed to allergic rhinitis. So, the burden is substantial.”

Fortunately, if you deal with seasonal allergies, rest assured — some solutions can improve your daily life when the pollens are high. Here are some suggestions to help you find the fixes that work best for you.

Identify the cause
Seasonal allergies are caused by what’s blooming at a given time of year. Different things bloom at different times, so your allergy is probably pretty specific. Knowing your triggers can tell you when symptoms are likely to worsen or improve.

“We have a lot of tree, weed, and grass pollen here in Oklahoma, and that’s typically spring into summer and fall,” says Dr. Montalbano. Ragweed is a major pollinator in our area too, she says, and it typically blooms in the late summer to fall. But even in winter, you might have problems, because while it may be cold here, it’s warmer to the south. And those pesky winds that buffet our state bring cedar tree pollen and other allergens right to us from 200 miles away or more.

Rinse your nasal passages
Wondering about neti pots and sinus rinses? It may be worth giving them a try. Using a simple, over-the-counter sinus rinse daily will wash the pollen out of your nasal passages and help reduce inflammation. If you opt for a neti pot, use only distilled or sterilized water to create a salty solution that won’t put allergens or other contaminants into your sinuses.

Keep allergens out of the house
Another way to lessen the impact of pollen on your body is to keep those pesky allergens where they belong — outdoors. Keep your home as much of a pollen-free zone as you can by removing shoes when you come inside, closing windows and running the air conditioning, and wiping down the dog and cat when they come inside to remove pollen from their fur.

Medicate with caution
Antihistamines and nasal steroid sprays can help alleviate symptoms. But use them carefully. Nasal congestion sprays, such as Afrin and other brands, can be problematic. They don’t address the underlying cause of your allergies, and extended use can cause rebound congestion — meaning your symptoms will only get worse over time. Your doctor can help you find a better treatment if you need one.

Take your best shot
If you want to try to lessen your symptoms or even eliminate them, immunotherapy may help. More commonly known as allergy shots, this technique uses the patient’s immune system to cure the allergies over time by helping your body develop tolerance to the allergen. “This can be a life-changing therapy for people,” says Dr. Montalbano.

Stay alert to asthma
A complicating factor with seasonal allergies worth mentioning is asthma. Seasonal allergies and allergic rhinitis serve as a risk factor for developing asthma, and around 38% of patients with allergies will have asthma as well. Some patients will only have asthma when they have seasonal allergies. If you’re having asthmatic symptoms due to your allergies, it’s smart to see a specialist.

Talk with your doctor
“Part of what we do as allergists is identify what the triggers are so that we can provide precision care for that specific patient,” says Dr. Montalbano. “How you would treat someone who is allergic to cat hair is different from how you would treat an athlete who is suffering symptoms from the grass when they’re out on the field. That’s one of the benefits of seeing a specialist. We can help with precise treatment.”

Dr. Montalbano recommends making an appointment when you have long-lasting symptoms that have no relief; complications such as sinus infections, ear infections, and nasal polyps; side effects from medications that interfere with your ability to function; problems sleeping; inability to smell; or other sinus issues that aren’t resolving.

Don’t give up hope
If Dr. Montalbano has one message for the allergy-prone to remember, it’s this: “Patients don’t need to suffer. A lot of times, they have become so accustomed to a degree of symptoms that they don’t remember what it’s like to not have them. And there’s a lot that an allergist can offer in terms of improving quality of life. I think it’s a message of encouragement and hope that we can make this better.”  

Ways to Clean Indoor Air

  • Keep your windows shut. You may think you are letting in a refreshing breeze, but an open window also invites allergens into your home.
  • Change furnace and air conditioner filters every three months. Replace them with high-efficiency versions that trap small particles in dust and the pollen that may be circulating in the air.
  • Relocate plants. Houseplants may be a breeding ground for mold, a possible irritant that can worsen your allergy symptoms. Keep them in an open space, such as your living room.
  • Pollen can hitch a ride on your shoes and clothes and be deposited throughout your home. Change as soon as you walk through the door.
  • Wash your hair before bed. If you skip the suds, any pollen stuck to your strands will accumulate on your pillowcase. To be safe, wash bedding in hot water at least once a week.
  • Skip air fresheners. Tiny particles from air fresheners can irritate your respiratory tract, making allergies worse.
  • Vacuum and mop floors often.