Can You Garden if You Have Allergies?

It starts with a sneeze, followed by watery, red-rimmed, itchy eyes. Your throat starts to scratch and your head feels stuffy.

If you have allergies and you love to garden, you know this feeling. But you want to keep your hobby.

What can you do to be more comfortable while you tend your garden? Quite a bit, actually.

Take Medicine, Early

All those gardening sniffles happen because your body overreacts to pollen, releasing special chemicals to fight it off. That leads to your allergy symptoms.

The fix is simple. For gardeners who have a tough time with pollen, try a nasal steroid spray to reduce inflammation and that runny nose. You should start the spray a week or two before pollen season starts.

“What we want to avoid are allergy symptoms escalating into a sinus problem or asthma, both of which need more intense treatment,” says allergist Kent Knauer, MD. He practices at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center.

Pick Plants, Wisely

All gardeners look for an excuse to try new plants. But because of your allergies, you have a built-in reason to switch out those flower beds.

“Think about planting flowers and trees that are insect-pollinated, rather than wind-pollinated,” says Mary Tobin, MD. She’s an allergist and immunologist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

Wind-pollinated plants make a lot of pollen. The breeze, bees and other insects, and birds carry it around your yard. Most insect-pollinated plants are colorful, while wind-pollinated plants are their drab cousins.

“It’s really unlikely that you will completely eliminate sources of pollen in your yard, especially if your neighbors have pollen-producing plants, but I’ve changed my landscape and it’s helped me,” says Tobin, who also has seasonal allergies.

Your local gardening center is a good source of information. But you can also “just follow the bees,” Tobin says. “They’ll you know which plants are best.”

Timing Is Everything

It’s a good idea to check daily pollen counts, which you can usually find on popular weather apps. But pollen counts change throughout the day, too.

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“I tell my patients to limit their gardening early in the morning, when pollen counts tend to be higher,” says New Jersey allergist Neeta Ogden, MD.

Pollen counts can also be higher in late evening. So Ogden suggests finding a “sweet spot” of late morning, afternoon, or early evening to do serious yard work.

Many other things can affect pollen counts. For example, if the grass is damp, pollen counts could be higher later in the morning after the water evaporates.

A rainy day is good if pollen bothers you, since much of the pollen will be washed away. But be careful of gardening on hot, breezy days when pollen counts tend to be highest, Ogden says.

Dress for Pollen Success

Your gardening attire can go a long way in helping you beat off sniffles. You don’t have to buy anything special or expensive, but you should dress to protect yourself.

So when you’re ready to go dig in the dirt, consider wearing long sleeves and long pants, gloves, a hat to help keep pollen out of your hair, and sunglasses to help keep pollen out of your eyes.

Although some gardeners with allergies wear a mask, “most, including myself, don’t,” Tobin says.

Masks can be helpful. So consider a painter’s mask, which you can pick up at a local store, or even a bandana placed over your nose and mouth, Tobin suggests. The American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology recommends wearing a face mask that has received a special rating called “N95” when you garden.

Once you’re done digging, weeding, and planting, leave your gardening shoes outside and get your clothes and gloves into the laundry. Then it’s time for you to take a shower and wash your hair to remove as much pollen as possible.

It may seem like a lot of extra effort, but it’s worth it. “Once people get into a routine like this, they feel a lot better and actually can enjoy their gardening even more,” Tobin says.

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If All Else Fails

If your allergies are severe, you may want allergy immunotherapy. These include allergy shots or medicines that go under your tongue.

You get a tiny, diluted amount of the substance that affects you so you build up immunity to it. You’ll go to your doctor for these treatments on a regular basis for 3 to 5 years.

“If you can put in the time, it’s well worth it,” says Washington, D.C., allergist Talal Nsouli, MD.

He suggests considering allergy shots if medication and lifestyle changes don’t give you enough relief.

“We want people to enjoy their lives, and allergies can be controlled,” he says.

Get Ready for Fall

If you’ve made it through spring and summer and your garden is lush and gorgeous, you just have one more season to troubleshoot.

Fall can be a tough time for folks with mold allergies and those who are allergic to ragweed pollen.

“We always get an uptick of patients in the fall months who forget that things still pollinate from about mid-August to the first hard freeze,” Knauer says.

His advice: Raking leaves kicks up other pollens and mold, too, so take the same precautions you would in the spring.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on January 16, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

Aerobiology Lab at University of Tulsa: “What is Pollen?”

American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

NHS Choices: “Antihistamines.”

Kent Knauer, MD, allergy and immunology department, University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center; assistant clinical professor, medicine, Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.

Mary C. Tobin, MD, allergy and immunology department, Rush University Medical Center; associate professor, immunology and microbiology department, Rush Medical College.

University of Illinois Extension.

Neeta Ogden, MD, adult and pediatric allergist, asthma specialist, immunologist in private practice and at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center, Englewood, NJ; spokeswoman, American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

FDA: “Masks and N95 Respirators.”

Talal Nsouli, MD, director, Watergate & Burke Allergy & Asthma Centers, Washington, D.C., and Burke, VA.; clinical professor of pediatrics and allergy/immunology, Georgetown School of Medicine.

Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery: “Clinical Practice Guideline: Allergic Rhinitis.”

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