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Managing Allergies at Work

Do you space out at work due to allergy symptoms or medication?
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WebMD Feature

It's hard enough to cope with allergies on the weekend, but dealing with allergies at work is even more challenging.

Ask anyone who's ever dozed off in the middle of an important meeting because of allergy symptoms or medications.

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"Allergy symptoms are the No. 2 reason adults miss work," says James Sublett, MD, a board-certified asthma and allergy specialist in Louisville, Ky.

The average worker with allergies misses about one hour per week over the course of a year. But that sick time is often concentrated during peak allergy periods. An Ohio State University study showed that allergy sufferers can miss up to 32 hours of work in a week when allergens are at their peak. And with 20 to 50 million Americans suffering from some form of seasonal allergies, all that lost work really adds up.

The effect of allergies at work has been called "presenteeism" -- being at work, but out of it. A 2001 study in a telephone call center found a significant correlation between spiking pollen counts and decreased productivity -- about 10% -- for workers with allergies.

How Can You Manage Allergies at Work?

Experts recommend a three-pronged approach that includes:

  • Accurate diagnosis
  • Environmental control
  • Medication

Diagnosis must come first -- even if you think you already know what you're allergic to.

Get Allergy Tests

"Many people assume they know what triggers their allergies, but they can be wrong," says Cascya Charlot, MD, a board-certified allergy and asthma specialist who practices in Brooklyn, N.Y. "You can start managing allergies by protecting yourself from allergens, but that's hard to do if you don't know what your triggers are."

Once you've seen an allergist for an accurate assessment of your allergies, it's time to figure out how to minimize exposure to the allergens. That's easier to do if you're at home, where you control the environment. But there are things you can do at work to try to keep allergens at bay.

Manage Your Work Environment to Limit Allergens

"Many large office buildings already have air filtration systems, but smaller offices are more likely to have problems," says Sublett. "You can ask your office manager if they could change the filters in their air systems to high-efficiency filters -- MRV11 or MRV12 filters have the best rating. If they change them out every three months, it costs about 50 cents to a dollar per week, which is pretty inexpensive."

If you have your own office, you can also bring in a portable filter for that space, says Charlot. "That will help a little with light allergens like pollen that hangs in the air or cat dander that hangs on clothes."

Other things to improve your office environment:

  • Ask to have carpet removed or replaced from your office or cubicle.
  • Turn on the air conditioning, which can help to clear out some allergens.
  • Avoid bringing soft items into your office, like pillows for your chair seat or collectible stuffed animals. Allergens can collect on them.
  • If you see water damage in the office, ask to have it fixed -- mold can collect there.
  • Plan your schedule carefully. If you see that the forecast is for a high pollen count, consider eating in the office cafeteria that day instead of going out to lunch. And schedule outside meetings for later in the day, as the pollen count tends to be highest in the early mornings.

If your allergies are mild, environmental measures may be enough to control your allergies at work. But people with moderate to severe allergies usually find that they need medication to control symptoms like stuffy and runny noses, sneezing, and headaches. And those medications bring with them their own side effects, and a new set of problems.

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