Miserable, incurable, and afflicting at least 35 million of us, spring allergies are fast approaching. They kick in when the immune system, mistaking pollens for harmful substances, responds by triggering the release of chemicals including histamines (the source of watery eyes, sneezing fits, and runny noses). On the bright side, an allergic response is the sign of an active immune system, and research has found that allergy sufferers have lower rates of many types of cancers. Still, allergies should be managed—they can lead to sinusitis if left unchecked—so with spring upon us, here's my advice.
Keep allergens out.
Pollen can collect on your clothes, skin, and hair, and be tracked into your home, where it mixes with household dust. A shower and change of clothes will cut down on the irritants you inhale. Keeping windows closed and turning on the air-conditioning can also reduce allergy symptoms by filtering out pollen (just be sure to follow the manufacturer's instructions for cleaning the filter).
Perk up puffy eyes.
The histamines released during an allergy attack cause blood vessels to dilate, making eyes swollen and watery. For quick relief, try cold compresses or eye creams whose ingredients include caffeine; cold and caffeine both reduce swelling and help you look and feel better.
Watch the weather.
High winds and low humidity allow more pollen to become airborne. Under these conditions, try to stay indoors between typical peak pollen hours of 5 A.M. and 10 A.M., or at least take allergy medicine before heading outside.
Understand your meds.
Many people confuse antihistamines and decongestants—the go-to treatments for allergy sufferers—but these two medications affect the body in very different ways. Decongestants are for immediate relief; they work by contracting the small blood vessels in the membranes of your nose, slowing the flow of mucus. Antihistamines, however, work throughout the body to block the effects of histamines in the first place (which is why they work best when taken before symptoms occur).
In addition to the raft of prescription and OTC allergy medications, there are a number of natural supplements that may be effective in quelling symptoms—potentially with fewer side effects. (As with most supplements, talk to your doctor before taking them.) The herb butterbur has been found in some studies to work as well as antihistamines do, minus the drowsiness. Another herb that may help is stinging nettle, which research indicates can work like an antihistamine. Ideally you should begin taking these supplements (both available as capsules) before symptoms develop; try to start several weeks prior to allergy season.
Are You an Allergy Sufferer? Read On