Managing Allergies at Work

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

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on July 01, 2008
5 min read

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.

"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.

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.

"Many people assume they know what triggers their allergies, but they can be dead wrong," says Cascya Charlot, MD, a board-certified allergy and asthma specialist who practices in Brooklyn, N.Y. "You can start managing allergies by avoiding exposure to certain allergens, but this can be challenging if you don’t know what you are allergic to."

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.

"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 HEPA filter for that space, says Charlot. "This will help remove allergens such as pet dander and pollen which tend to remain suspended in the air for long periods of time. Pet allergens can be carried into the workplace by co-workers who are pet owners and pollen can easily make its way into an office through an open window."

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.

"The biggest side effect with most allergy medications is drowsiness or jitteriness," says Charlot.

To avoid meandering through your workday like a zombie, first try treating individual symptoms rather than using systemic medications. For example, if congestion is what's driving you crazy, use nasal sprays. If it's watery eyes, use eyedrops like natural tears to clear the allergens from the eyes. Zaditor is another topical treatment for itchy, watery eyes that recently became over the counter.

But not all topical treatments are created equal, experts say. Over-the-counter nasal sprays like Afrin have a rebound effect. "It can be difficult to stop certain over the counter nasal sprays without experiencing worsening symptoms," says Charlot.

What if the topical approach isn't working? Second- and third-generation antiallergy medications aren't as sedating as the first-generation antihistamines like Benadryl, so you may be able to battle your workday allergy symptoms without feeling doped up instead.

"There are totally nonsedating antihistamines like Allegra, Claritin, and Alavert," says Sublett. "Those can treat mild to moderate allergies, but they really won't have much of an impact on moderate to severe allergies."

No matter which allergy medication you choose, be proactive in your treatment.

"The key is regular usage. People think of taking allergy medications when allergens get really bad, or using steroid nasal sprays only when you have trouble," says Sublett. "But the key is regular usage. If you really want to manage your allergy symptoms and be more effective at work, start at the very beginning of the season before things get out of control, and keep using your medications throughout the seasonal symptoms."

If you've tried everything and allergies still get in the way of your work life, the next step may be immunotherapy -- allergy shots. Allergy shots are given anywhere from once to three times a week during the buildup phase, and then down to once a week or less at the maintenance level. "It's the only way to get allergies really under control in the long term," says Sublett.