Spring is in the air, and for a lot of people, that means allergies have arrived, too.
Here in the U.S., more than 19 million of us suffer from seasonal allergies, also called allergic rhinitis or hay fever. The experts at the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology say allergies are one of the top reasons we stay sick for a long time, and in addition to making us miserable, they cost us billions.
What are allergies all about? If you have seasonal allergies, your eyes start itching when you breathe in allergens like pollen, grass, and molds. These tend to flare up during the spring, summer, and early fall. But other nasty allergens can stick around all year long, like house dust mites, animal dander, cockroaches, and mold spores.
If you suffer from allergies, you can blame your immune system. In a misguided attempt to help you, your immune system wages war against an “enemy” allergen. Think of your runny nose and itchy eyes as the war’s collateral damage.
Why are my allergies getting worse with age?
As you get older, your immune system changes. Some parts get weaker while others ramp up. If you’re lucky, your allergies might improve. For the lucky few, a weaker immune system no longer sees the allergens as the enemy and the problem goes away completely.
On the other hand, your allergies could get worse with age–or even appear for the first time. Your body may have a stronger “autoimmune” response than it used to, and it gets more finicky about things it thinks are the enemy. Or allergies may simply worsen with age because you’ve been exposed to the triggers longer, according to allergist Purvi Parikh, M.D., in an interview with Prevention magazine. “It takes repeated exposure to develop allergies. It can take a while for the system to decide it doesn’t like that allergen,” Parikh told Prevention.
May is National Asthma and Allergy Awareness Month. To celebrate (not really!), here are a few tips and tricks to understanding and coping with allergies.
Is it allergies or a cold?
When it comes to allergies to things in the air, there are several common symptoms, including:
- Itchy or watery eyes
- Lots of sneezing and sniffling
- Clear and watery stuff dripping out of your nose
- Symptoms that crop up when you’re in the same spot (for example, in a house with a dog)
But if you’re sniffling and sneezing, you might think you’ve caught a cold, especially if you’ve never had allergies before. So how can you tell the difference? If you have body aches, a fever, or sore throat, you probably have a virus, like cold, flu, or COVID-19. Get to the doctor if you’re not sure or if your symptoms are really bothering you. Whether it’s allergies or an illness, your doctor may be able to help.
7 ways to cope with allergies
While there’s no cure for allergies, there are a few ways you can combat those annoying symptoms:
1. Find the cause
- If you don’t know what you’re allergic to, keep track for a few weeks. Jot down where you are and what you’re doing whenever you start feeling crummy. This can help you figure out what you’re allergic to so you can stay away.
- Your doctor can also run tests to figure out what you’re allergic to. Medicare may cover the cost of these tests.
2. Avoid allergens
- If you’re allergic to pollen or grasses, try to avoid going out much on windy days and days with high pollen counts. Watch the local news or check Pollen.com to get forecasts for your area.
- Keep the A/C on in your house and car. Air conditioners have a filter that helps clean the air. Clean and change the filters so you’re not just blowing more allergens around..
- Try to keep doors and windows closed most of the time. “Fresh air” can be packed with allergens.
- Try wearing a mask when you’re around a lot of allergens, like when you’re gardening or dusting.
- Pop on a pair of wrap-around sunglasses when you go out to protect your eyes if they tend to get watery or itchy.
3. Clean your home
- Dust and vacuum your home as often as possible, particularly during the peak seasonal allergy months. Wearing a mask while cleaning can help.
- Declutter! Toss out your dust collecting stuff, even if it’s pretty like dried flowers, or move them to a room you’re not in much.
4. Wash up
- Wash your hands a lot.
- During peak allergy months, shower and change your outer layer of clothing (or at least wash your face) right after coming inside.
- Try “nasal irrigation” with a bottled saline spray or neti pot. Flushing out your nose and sinuses can help clear out allergens. You can buy over-the-counter saline solutions or ask your allergist for instructions on how to make your own. Be careful to follow directions, such as using purified water.
5. Boost your immune system
- Eat a healthy diet, with lots of fruits and veggies. Add a lot of foods high in vitamin C, like oranges and strawberries, which support a healthy immune system.
- Get plenty of exercise to keep your immune system strong. (As always, check with your doctor before starting a new workout.)
6. Talk to your doctor about pills and sprays
- For allergies, it’s popular to take antihistamines to cut down the body’s reaction and symptoms. Unfortunately, antihistamines are not recommended for people over 65. These drugs can boost your blood pressure, and might not mix well with other medications. You could end up with bad side effects such as anxiety, confusion, sedation, and blurred vision. So you’d best talk to your doctor before taking any allergy medications.
- Nasal steroids, such as Flonase and Nasacort, may be a better choice. Yes, you can just buy them at the pharmacy, but ask your doctor before trying them. You’ll want to know how to use them properly, potential side effects, and whether they’re the right choice for you.
7. Ask about allergy shots
- If your allergies are driving you nuts, ask your doctor about allergy shots, which could cure your allergies. The shots start with a tiny bit of the allergen, and you get a little more each time you go. By the end, your immune system has gotten used to the allergen and no longer thinks it’s a problem. If your doctor thinks you need the shots, they may be covered by Medicare.
- Whether your allergies are easing up or getting worse every year, these steps can help you breathe easier. Your doctor is your ally for managing allergies. Make sure to get advice for treatments that might help. There’s no reason to just sniffle, suffer, and stock up on tissues.
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