10 ways to beat hay fever

Top allergists offer tips for staying sneeze-free this spring and throughout the year

If right now your eyes are itching and watering and you're on the verge of a sneeze, odds are that hay-fever season has just hit you in the face. And if you're not sneezing now, you may be in a few more days. So what are you going to do about it? Many people will try the three-pronged attack they used last year. They will (1) suffer, (2) suffer and (3) suffer some more. But the allergy experts we talked to say that, though there is no cure yet for hay fever and related allergies, there are a lot of ways to minimize your misery and outsmart the things that trigger your symptoms. Here are some of their best ideas for staying sneeze- free this spring and all year long:

Home in on hay-fever cycles. Pollen counts tend to peak at dawn and at dusk, so it follows that your hay fever will hit hardest with the rising and setting of the sun. Evening pollen counts don't climb quite as high as those in the morning, but are substantially higher than what you come in contact with during the day. So if you're going to be outside, particularly if you follow a regular exercise program, schedule your activity around peak pollen times for easier breathing.

Actually, the best time for you to be outside would be directly after an afternoon shower. Pollen tends to be washed out of the air by rain, cutting daytime counts down even further. Just beware: If you're also allergic to molds, you should get your walking time in before the attack of the mold spores. Molds thrive in humidity. So a warm rain triggers increased spore production within a few hours. Squeeze your walk into the hour or so lag time between showers and spores.

Stay alert to `cross reactivity.' If you're allergic to ragweed pollen, you might get quite a surprise when you take a bite of a cantaloupe.

Some people experience what's called oral-allergy syndrome when they eat certain foods---and it's closely linked with hay fever. One study showed that of 262 patients with allergies to certain fruits and vegetables, 79 percent of them also had hay fever.

People with ragweed allergies, for instance, often experience an allergic reaction when eating watermelon, cantaloupe or honeydew, according to Fred M. Atkins, M.D., a food-allergy specialist with the American Academy of Allergy and Immunology. And people with birch-tree-pollen allergy often react to raw fruits and vegetables like cherries, apples, pears, peaches, carrots and potatoes.

"There may be some cross-reactivity with the allergens," says Robert Bush, M.D., professor of medicine at the University of Wisconsin and chief of allergy at William S. Middleton Veterans Administration Hospital. "But what ingestion of those foods produces is not hay fever, but lipswelling, itching of the throat and swelling of the lips or tongue."

So what can you do to alleviate oral-allergy syndrome? "Probably the best course is avoidance of the foods," Dr. Bush says. "But a lot of times just cooking raw fruits and vegetables reduces the problem."

Skip the alcohol during hay-fever season. Many people feel stuffy and congested when they drink alcohol. And that can be a real nuisance when they're already struggling to breathe through a congested nose. Says William W. Storms, M.D., of the American College of Allergy and Immunology, "People are generally not allergic to the alcohol, but the alcohol causes a vasodilating (expanding) effect in the blood vessels of the nose, which then swells up the nasal passageways."

If you experience such congestion, it's a good idea to avoid alcohol during hay-fever season. And remember, too, if you're taking medication for your allergy, alcohol and antihistamines don't mix. Both can be sedating--- and that's a dangerous combination.

Take the `full course' of antihistamines. Hay-fever sufferers make one big mistake with antihistamines, says Dr. Storms: They take one, feel relieved and take no more. This leaves them at the mercy of each new exposure to the allergen.

But ongoing antihistamine treatment provides some protective effect against attacks, says Dr. Storms. "So unless your doctor advises otherwise, you should be taking antihistamines every day until the season's over," he says.

Customize your antihistamine regimen to beat drowsiness. For some, feeling tired is just another symptom of hay fever. But the very drug you take to beat your hay fever could drag you down even further. Antihistamines are notorious for making you sleepy. And as a result, they can interfere with your driving and work skills during the day.

You could try taking them before bed. And there are prescription antihistamines that--- unlike most over-the-counter ones---don't make you drowsy. Your doctor can prescribe them to you, along with prescription decongestants or nasal sprays. And if your symptoms persist, he can refer you to an allergist who can determine if there's a treatable cause of your symptoms.

Go easy on the OTC nasal sprays. Nasal sprays are a good, quick way to unclog your congested nasal passageways. But allergists recommend that you don't use them any longer than three days in a row. After that, they can actually increase congestion---and even lead to addiction.

It's true, says Charles H. Banov, M.D., an allergist and past president of the American College of Allergy and Immunology. "What happens is, you actually get a change in nose tissue and you require more and more of the medicine for the tissue to shrink. Finally, you have to use so much and spray it so often to get the effects that the nose drops act as an irritant," he says.

Then the irritated nose tissue becomes more swollen, and you feel even more stuffed up. Besides limiting spray use to three days, to avoid problems, you can also try a nasal spray that you can get by doctor's prescription.

And Dr. Banov recommends that you try using your own spray from a salt-water solution---one teaspoon of salt to one pint of water. It's safe and has no addictive capability.

Stay away from smoke. As if there weren't enough good reasons to avoid cigarette smoke (passive smoke included), allergists now advise that you stay away from smoke to limit your congestion.

Odds are, you aren't allergic to the cigarette smoke itself. Though a lot of people claim cigarette allergies, only about 3 percent of those bothered by smoke are really allergic. Smoke does act as an irritant, worsening symptoms in an already- congested nose.

Howard J. Schwartz, M.D., clinical professor of medicine at Case Western Reserve University, adds, "If you have a limited amount of space through which to breathe and you've already got it compromised by pollen, then you've got a double problem with heavy smoke."

Avoid the odors that trigger symptoms. You want to steer clear of fragrant flowers and other strong odors if your hay fever worsens when you're exposed to them. As with smoke, strong smells in the air can mean irritation in the nose, swelling nasal passageways.

But it's not just the garden that's troublesome. Strong-smelling perfumes and hair sprays can aggravate your allergies, too. The pungent smells of household cleaners can make matters worse. And even a walk down the detergent aisle can send your hay fever hopping, says Dr. Storms.

Ban the dust mites. Some experts estimate that as many as 30 million people are prisoners in their own homes to allergen-producing critters called house dust mites.

Dust mites are microscopic organisms that feed off flakes of human skin and food debris. Their feces are potent allergens. They're always around, but since they live in dust, keeping your house as dust- free as possible can reduce your contact with them.

One way to do that is to reduce clutter that collects dust, says Allan Weinstein, M.D., allergy consultant to the National Institutes of Health and author of Asthma: The Complete Guide to Self-Management of Asthma and Allergies for Patients and Their Families (Fawcett, 1988). "Keep the number of knickknacks to a minimum," he says. "The same goes for older rugs, wall coverings and furniture. The dust mite loves older carpeting, overstuffed furniture and the like." Dr. Weinstein recommends washing your linens in hot water rather than cool to kill the dust mites. And, he says, you might want to keep a bedspread on the bed during the day and remove it at night when you sleep. "Let the bedspread collect the dust, not you," he adds. (For other tips, see "Dust Control in the Bedroom," Prevention, page 60, April 1990.)

Root out the molds. Make sure there's no mold lingering in the recesses of your home. You could have a year-round allergy to mold that works in cahoots with your hay fever to make you miserable.

Molds can show up wherever there's dampness. As part of their reproductive process, they produce spores that are spread through the air and that cause allergies in a number of people.

Reduce your mold contact by keeping your bathroom gleaming and ventilated. Also, dehumidifiers, vaporizers and air-conditioning units all have potential for mold growth. So be sure to change the water and keep them clean.

Even older foam pillows can harbor mold, so if you have a mold allergy, buy a new pillow every year or so. And have someone who is not allergic remove mulch, dead leaves and dead plants from your yard---they're perfect environments for mold growth.

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By Stephanie Ebbert

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