Spring is officially here as of Monday, but don't break out the picnic basket just yet. If you're one of the 50 million Americans battling seasonal allergies every year, you might want to stock up on antihistamines.
Allergies are the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the United States, with symptoms varying from mildly uncomfortable to severe to potentially life-threatening, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Asthma sufferers are faced with a double challenge at the beginning of spring, since the presence of allergens in the air typically makes their discomfort worsen.
For some, struggling with allergens is more of a crusade than a seasonal nuisance: people diagnosed with chronic allergies — allergic rhinitis, or hay fever — experience allergy symptoms all throughout the year.
Early Allergy Season
Meet the culprit: pollen. It is the most common allergen to trigger all the seasonal bothersome symptoms, which include itchy runny nose, nasal and sinus congestion, repeated sneezing, watery eyes, inflamed sinuses, and — in severe cases — difficulty breathing.
To make matters worse, this year's allergy season has come earlier than usual. Warm temperatures and the mild winter have created the perfect conditions for pollen to come out and disperse sooner, pollen counts increasing depending on where you live.
The early pollen comes primarily from trees and experts estimate a rise in allergen prevalence as soon as grass and weed pollens begin to emerge in April.
Upcoming weeks are expected to be considerably trying for asthma and allergy sufferers, as the seasonal shift will bring even more pollen in the air.
"The real small pollen that affects people the most hasn't gotten bad yet. It's just getting ready to start showing up," warns Bill Murphey, Georgia state climatologist.
Warming temperatures are directly associated with increased pollen counts, explains Murphey, save for rainy days, when the air is clearer.
Tips On Avoiding Common Allergens
You might think there's not a lot you can do to shield yourself from pollen exposure, but the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI) says otherwise.
Many people "find themselves under siege from pollen and other allergens that appear once the weather starts to warm up", explains Dr. Stephen Tilles, AAAAI's president.
"What they don't realize is that by following a few simple rules they can make life a lot more pleasant, and their allergies more bearable," he detailed in a news release.
According to the AAAAI's recommendations, the first thing you can do to ease allergy misery and keep asthma symptoms under control is some spring cleaning. Regular vacuuming (at least once a week), washing upholstery and cleaning out the dust mites and mold gathered over the cold season will reduce the amount of allergens floating around in your home and prevent them from attacking your nasal passages.
Don't forget to wear a dust mask while cleaning indoors and make sure to also change the air filters. The most effective way to keep your house allergen-free is by installing a HEPA filter to the air conditioning units both in your home and your car.
Another good solution to keep pollen out is keeping the doors and windows closed and setting the air-conditioner on re-circulate to get a breeze going. Tempting as it may be, leaving your window open to get some fresh air will result in allergy symptoms flaring up.
Dodging Pollen Outdoors
As much as you may want to, you can't barricade yourself indoors and wait out the season. Therefore, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America offers a few handy guidelines to limit contact with allergens for when you finally break cover.
To reduce the chances of an allergic reaction, plan your outdoor activities in the after-noon, when pollen counts are halved compared with morning.
Always wear a pollen filter mask and protective goggles if you're gardening or doing work outside.
When you do go out, don't leave your house without a hat and sunglasses, to keep pollen out of your eyes and hair.
After returning home, change clothes immediately and treat yourself to a bath to get rid of any pollen that might have stuck to your skin.
Pet owners are advised to keep beloved house animals out of the bedroom, especially if they spend a lot of time outside, to minimize dander and pollen exposure.