By Dr. Mercola
In much of the U.S., spring allergies may begin as early as February and last until summer. Tree pollen is a common springtime allergen, although often people have allergies to three or four species of trees and plants. Airborne mold spores represent another common culprit.
Monitoring outdoor pollen counts can be helpful, but you'll only benefit from staying indoors on high-count days if the elevated levels include pollens to which you're allergic (allergy testing can help you determine your individual allergies).
A better bet is to be prepared to tackle your springtime allergies regardless of what the day's pollen count may be.
How Do Seasonal Allergies Develop?
Seasonal allergies, sometimes called hay fever, affect up to 8 percent of the U.S. population.1 They cause a number of bothersome symptoms including sneezing, stuffy or runny nose, watery and itchy eyes, and itching in your nose, mouth or throat.
Allergies are your body's reaction to particles that it considers foreign (allergens). The first time your body encounters an allergen, your plasma cells release immunoglobulin E (IgE), an antibody specific to that allergen.
IgE attaches to the surface of your mast cells, which are found in great numbers in your surface tissues, such as your skin and nasal mucous membranes, where they help mediate inflammatory responses. Mast cells release a number of important chemical mediators, one of which is histamine.
The second time your body encounters a particular allergen, within a few minutes your mast cells become activated and release a powerful cocktail of histamine, leukotrienes, and prostaglandins, which trigger the entire cascade of symptoms you associate with allergies.
The American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI) explained:2
"One of the marvels of the human body is that it can defend itself against harmful invaders such as viruses or bacteria. In some people, the body reacts to harmless substances such as dust, mold or pollen by producing an antibody called immunoglobulin E (IgE).
When patients with one of the allergic diseases (such as rhinitis or asthma) are exposed to these substances, the immune system then rallies its defenses, launching a host of complex chemical weapons to attack and destroy the supposed enemy.
In the process, some unpleasant and, in extreme cases, life-threatening symptoms may be experienced.
… An allergic reaction may occur anywhere in the body, but usually appears in the skin, eyes, lining of the stomach, nose, sinuses, throat and lungs — places where special immune system cells are stationed to fight off invaders that are inhaled, swallowed or come in contact with the skin."
Tips for Surviving Spring Allergy Season
If you're tired of suffering through what should be one of the most pleasant times of the year, here are some of the best survival strategies to add to your allergy-fighting arsenal:
1. Limit Pollen Exposure
To minimize your allergy symptoms, the ACAAI suggests reducing your exposure to pollen by:3
- Avoiding clothing made of synthetic fabrics, as they can produce an electric charge when rubbed that attracts and makes pollen stick to you. Better options include natural fibers like cotton.
- Exercising outdoors before dawn, in the late afternoon, and/or early evening, as pollen counts are at the lowest at these times. Intense exercise may be best done indoors, as your increased breathing rate could make you inhale more pollen.
- Wearing gloves and a mask when gardening. To filter pollen, wear a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)-rated 95 filter mask. Also avoid touching your eyes and when done be sure to take a shower and wash your clothes.
- Reducing your exposure to indoor allergens may also help reduce spring allergy symptoms.
To improve your indoor air quality, regularly vacuum your home, including furniture, using a HEPA filter vacuum cleaner, leave shoes by the door to avoid trekking dirt through the house, and use a dehumidifier and/or a HEPA filter air purifier.
2. Try Natural Remedies
Nature provides allergy relief in a number of natural herbs and vitamins. You may want to consider:
- Hot peppers: Hot chili peppers, horseradish, and hot mustards work as natural decongestants. In fact, a nasal spray containing capsaicin (derived from hot peppers) significantly reduced nasal allergy symptoms in a 2009 study.4
- Quercetin: Quercetin is an antioxidant that belongs to a class of water-soluble plant substances called flavonoids.
Quercetin-rich foods (such as apples, berries, red grapes, red onions, capers and black tea) prevent histamine release — so they are "natural antihistamines."
Quercetin is also available in supplement form — a typical dose for hay fever is between 200 and 400 milligrams (mg) per day.
- Butterbur (Petasites hybridus): Another natural antihistamine, butterbur was used to treat coughs and asthma as far back as the 17th century.
Researchers have since identified the compounds in butterbur that help reduce symptoms in asthma by inhibiting leukotrienes and histamines, which are responsible for symptom aggravation in asthma.5
In a German study, 40 percent of patients taking butterbur root extract were able to reduce their intake of traditional asthma medications.6 A word of caution is needed, however.
Butterbur is a member of the ragweed family, so if you are allergic to ragweed, marigold, daisy, or chrysanthemum, you should not use butterbur.
Also, the raw herb should not be used because it contains substances called pyrrolizidine alkaloids that can be toxic to your liver and kidneys and may cause cancer. Commercial butterbur products have had a lot of these alkaloids removed.
- Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis): Goldenseal may be helpful for seasonal allergies. Laboratory studies suggest that berberine, the active ingredient in goldenseal, has antibacterial and immune-enhancing properties.
- Eucalyptus oil: This pure essential oil can be healing to mucus membranes. You can apply a drop on a cotton ball and sniff it several times a day, add a few drops to water (or to a nebulizer, if you own one) for a steam treatment, or use a few drops in your bath water.
- Vitamin C: Vitamin C is another natural antihistamine. Naturopathic doctor Dr. Doni Wilson told the Huffington Post, " … [Y]ou need to take 500 to 1,000 mg., three times a day to reduce symptoms."7
- Green Tea: If you have cedar pollen allergies, you should know about a type of slightly fermented, organic Japanese green tea called "Benifuuki."
The tea has been shown to strongly inhibit mast cell activation and histamine release, as well as relieve symptoms of runny nose and eye itching in people with cedar pollen allergy.8
3. Nasal Irrigation
Using a neti pot (a small, teapot-like pot) is a simple technique to safely cleanse your sinuses of irritants, including allergens. It involves pouring water into one nostril and allowing it to flow out the other. You can find detailed instructions for nasal irrigation here.
Be sure to avoid using tap water, as it could potentially be contaminated with brain-eating amoeba or other contaminants. Only use water that is distilled, sterilized, previously boiled or filtered using a filter with an absolute pore size of 1 micron or smaller.
Homeopathic solutions contain miniscule doses of plants, minerals, animal products, or other compounds that cause symptoms similar to what you are already experiencing.
The remedies have been diluted many times over, and the idea is that the substance will stimulate your body's own healing process. While research on homeopathy is limited, anecdotally many have found relief from allergy symptoms using homeopathic remedies.
5. Diet, Exercise and Stress Relief
Many people aren't aware that lifestyle habits may influence your allergy symptoms. "Healing and sealing" your gut has been shown to help alleviate allergy symptoms, and the key to this is eliminating inflammatory foods like grains and processed foods and introducing healthier foods, including fermented foods, that will support a proper balance of bacteria in your gut.
Eating a wholesome diet based on unprocessed, ideally organic and/or locally grown foods, including fermented foods, along with optimizing your vitamin D levels and correcting your omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, will form the foundation upon which your immune system can function in an optimal manner.
Interestingly, while we're on the topic of diet, if you have tree pollen allergies, you should avoid avocados when the trees are pollinating to avoid exacerbating your symptoms. In the Huffington Post, Mike Tringale, senior vice president of External Affairs for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), further explained the importance of a healthy lifestyle for fighting allergies:9
"An allergic disorder means you have a chronic disease of your immune system … Exercise can bolster your immune system, which means it can be a helpful strategy when you're fighting your allergies. Immunotherapy [like allergy shots] increase your tolerance to a trigger, but your body will still produce antibodies to those allergens."
When you're healthy, your body will be able to tolerate more of the trigger before a reaction occurs. Even stress relief is important, as chronic stress weakens your immune system. Research shows that people with persistent emotional stress have more frequent allergy flare-ups, so be sure you're tending to your emotional health.
The 15 Worst Cities for Spring Allergies
AAFA has released the 2016 Spring Allergy Capitals, which provides insights into where people are most affected by seasonal allergy symptoms.10 The report takes into account not only pollen scores but also rates of allergy medication usage and the number of board-certified allergists in the area. The 15 worst cities were as follows:
- Jackson, Mississippi
- Memphis, Tennessee
- Syracuse, New York
- Louisville, Kentucky
- McAllen, Texas
- Wichita, Kansas
- Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
- Providence, Rhode Island
- Knoxville, Tennessee
- Buffalo, New York
- Dayton, Ohio
- Little Rock, Arkansas
- Columbia, South Carolina
- Richmond, Virginia
- Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Provocation Neutralization May Offer Permanent Allergy Relief
Provocation neutralization (PN), which is taught by the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM), can be very effective for allergy relief. I was a member of the AAEM and administered this treatment in my office when I was practicing. PN offers many allergy sufferers permanent relief without adverse side effects. The success rate for this approach is about 80 to 90 percent, and you can receive the treatment at home.
The provocation refers to "provoking a change" and neutralization refers to "neutralizing the reaction caused by provocation." During provocation neutralization, a small amount of allergen is injected under your skin to produce a small bump called a "wheal" on the top layers of your skin, and then it is monitored for a reaction.
If you have a positive reaction, such as fatigue, headache, or a growth in the size of the wheal, then the allergen is neutralized with diluted injections or with drops of the same allergen that go in your mouth.
If you are interested in pursuing PN, AAEM has a list of physicians and offices that are trained in this highly effective and recommended technique.11 It is important to remember that the PN program is in addition to, not a replacement for, a comprehensive allergy recovery program and healthy lifestyle.