Your Survival Guide to One of the Worst Allergy Seasons Ever

Why this year promises to be a doozy for allergy sufferers -- and what you can do about it

Allergy season is in full swing and experts say this year promises to be one of the worst hay fever seasons -- ever. If you’re among the 35 percent of Americans who suffer from symptoms, you probably already have the puffy eyes and stuffy nose to prove it.

“The season is starting earlier than ever before. Not only are we in for a longer season of sneezing and wheezing, it means infinitely more pollen, too,” says allergist Myron Zitt, M.D., former president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI). According to Zitt, you can thank the unseasonably tepid winter -- and global warming -- for that.

Quick science review: Plants need sunlight, water, a temperate climate and carbon dioxide (CO2) to grow. The mild winter, combined with rain early in the season already set us up to reap bushels of sneeze-worthy crops. Add the surplus of CO2 emissions thanks to global warming, and we're seeing plants produce 130 times more pollen than they used to, making them way worse for allergy sufferers.

Recently in Atlanta a pollen count of 9,369 particles per cubic meter of air blew away the previous record of 6,013! (According to the ACAAI, anything over 1,500 is considered extremely high). Zitt says as temperatures climb, we can expect to see similar pollen levels across the rest of the country soon.

Is all that pollen making you want to run for cover? Here’s how to manage your symptoms -- no gas mask required.

Treat symptoms before they start. In people who are allergic, pollen triggers the immune system’s inflammation response. This response releases substances, like histamine, which cause your allergy symptoms. As soon as you start sneezing, your immune system has already come into contact with the allergen, tracked it down and launched an attack. The problem is the chemicals that your body sends to the area damage your cells’ membranes, and make you infinitely more sensitive to the allergen than you were in the first place, explains Zitt. That means, as the season goes on, it takes less pollen to trigger a more severe response. Whoops. To prevent this hyper-reactive response (called priming), you have to treat allergies before symptoms start with anti-inflammatory medication (like corticosteroids), and take it throughout the entire season, not just when symptoms flare. The sooner you start (like ASAP!), the better off you’ll be, says Catherine Monteleone, M.D., associate professor of medicine at UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and a board-certified allergist. Over-the-counter antihistamines, like Claritin, can be used in tandem to reduce symptoms, but they won’t prevent the priming response, warns Zitt.

ID your allergies. Hay fever is typically caused by tree pollen in the spring, grasses in the summer and ragweed in the fall. Mold, which loves warm, humid weather, peaks from mid-summer to fall. Visit a board-certified allergist to find out exactly which species are triggering your constant sneezes, itchy eyes and runny nose so you can plan when to start taking your meds, and, if possible, avoid the plants that cause you the most aggravation, says Zitt.

Swear off Chanel No. 5. During allergy season, your immune system is trigger-happy and prone to friendly fire, thanks to the priming response. As a result, it can’t distinguish between irritants such as your favorite perfume or allergens, explains Monteleone. That means household cleaners, fragrant candles and pollution can all trigger symptoms. Do yourself a favor and limit your exposure to strong scents when hay fever is at its worst.

Spend mornings indoors. Pollen counts tend to peak in the early morning, so do your gardening and working out in the late afternoon or early evening. When you come in from outside, change your clothes and shower, or at the very least, wash your face to remove all traces of pollen. Monteleone advises giving your jacket a good shake (or use a lint brush on it) to get rid of pollen before stepping inside.

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