With the first deep breath of spring, more than 50 million Americans begin their nearly year-round symptoms of sneezing, wheezing, coughing, snorting, and itching. And millions of allergy sufferers seek allergy relief in prescription medications that cost $6 billion dollars per year worldwide.
Let's be honest. If the miserable symptoms of pollen allergies don't push you over the edge, some allergy relief medicines can. Sure, some older allergy relief medicines ease your symptoms, but they can also leave you feeling sluggish, sleepy, and unable to concentrate at work or school.
So how can something as miniscule as pollen make you feel absolutely awful? And where do you turn for effective allergy relief when you're plagued by weeks of impenetrable pollen?
What Is Pollen Anyway?
To know what you're up against, it's important to know something about pollen. Pollen, the microscopic powdery granules of flowering plants, is the mechanism for the fertilization of trees, grasses, and weeds.
While pollen from plants with bright flowers like roses rarely trigger allergy symptoms, the tiny, dry pollens from grasses, trees, and weeds are the main allergy culprits. Even though your yard may have no true pollen offenders, pollen particulates blow in the wind. For example, one ragweed plant can produce up to 1 billion pollen grains, and each grain can travel more than 100 miles from its source.
Every plant has a specific period of pollination. Although weather changes can determine the pollen count in the air, the pollinating season stays constant with trees pollinating first during springtime, grasses pollinating from late spring to midsummer, and then weeds pollinating in late summer and early fall.
Need Allergy Relief When Pollen Counts Are High?
The best way to get allergy relief is to take allergy medicines on a regular basis and start before pollen season hits, says William E. Berger, MD, MBA, professor of medicine at the University of California, Irvine. Berger is past president of the American College of Allergy and Immunology and author of Allergies and Asthma for Dummies.
In the body, histamines are chemicals that can cause swelling, sneezing, itching and a runny drippy nose or postnasal drip (mucus down the back of your throat). Antihistamines (allergy relief medicines) are effective in treating some of the allergy symptoms caused by histamines.
Berger tells WebMD that the goal is to prevent allergy symptoms from occurring. "Taking allergy medicines (antihistamines) regularly blocks the histamine receptors -- the tissues that cause swelling. Histamine works by attaching itself to these receptors on the surface of cells. If you block the site where histamine works by pre-treating with allergy medicines, you prevent the allergic reaction and the allergy symptoms."
To make his point, Berger uses an analogy: "What if someone takes your seat? Then you can no longer take that seat. It's now unavailable."
The same concept works with allergy medicine, says Berger. "If you take the allergy medicine, it blocks the site so histamine cannot be released. If you take allergy medicines regularly, you continue to block the site and control allergy symptoms."
Berger tells WebMD that taking antihistamines will not quickly stop today's stuffy nose or sneezing from allergies. Nor will these allergy medicines reverse existing allergy symptoms. Antihistamines prevent future allergy symptoms, says Berger.
Berger also recommends trying nasal corticosteroids, the first-line allergy relief medicines, two weeks before pollen season begins to keep symptoms at bay.
According to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology, the best allergy medications work by inhibiting the immune system's release of chemicals (IgE) that can trigger allergic reactions. As Berger suggests, if allergy medicines are taken before you are exposed to pollen, they can help to stabilize your immune system before you experience the miserable allergy symptoms.
Recommended treatment for pollen allergies includes: over-the-counter and prescription antihistamines such as Allegra, Benadryl, or Clarinex; decongestants like Sudafed; nasal steroids like Beconase, Flonase, or Veramyst; and drugs that combine antihistamines and decongestants like Allegra-D, Claritin-D, or Zyrtec-D. Allergy shots or immunotherapy are also a viable option for allergy relief for pollen allergies.
Need Quick Allergy Relief After Pollen Exposure?
So where do you turn when pollen hits you head-on and catches you without any protective allergy medicine? Are there remedies to ward off nasal congestion and still get allergy relief? Absolutely, according to Murray Grossan, MD, a Los-Angeles-based ENT and author of The Sinus Cure. Grossan tells WebMD that using a saline nasal rinse or nasal irrigation several times a day during the height of pollen season gives allergy relief for two reasons.
"The saline solution removes miniscule particles of pollen from the nasal passages and also removes IgE, the chemical in the body that reacts with pollen to give you the allergy symptoms," he explains. Lowered IgE levels mean fewer allergy symptoms.
Grossan knows all about nasal saline rinses and the respiratory system and with good reason: his Hydro-Pulse Nasal/Sinus Irrigator was featured in Time magazine (2000) as one of America's best inventions.
On a lighter note, Grossan mentions that the singer Enrico Caruso used to suck pickled fish before giving performances. "The hypertonic solution diluted his mucus, making it easier to sing," the doctor tells WebMD.
"In numerous published journal studies, findings show that patients with allergic rhinitis or chronic sinusitis who used saline nasal irrigation regularly left their doctors' offices with the bacterial load reduced, requiring fewer antibiotics and expressing much greater patient satisfaction," Grossan says.
To make a saline solution for nasal rinsing during pollen season, Grossan says use 1/4 teaspoon of salt to 4 ounces of bottled water.
See Your Allergist for More Allergy Relief
Lastly, if you are plagued by pollen allergies year round, your doctor may recommend allergy testing and allergy shots (immunotherapy). To get allergy relief, your doctor may also prescribe an inhaled steroid nasal spray, a non-sedating antihistamine, a decongestant, or other allergy medications.
It's important to stay on your allergy medications daily to get full allergy relief and to prevent further problems. Allergy medicines are especially necessary during spring pollen season when you risk being in allergy overload from all the offending substances.
If you feel that your allergy medicines are not giving you enough relief, talk to your doctor or allergist. Many of the newer inhaled allergy medicines can help stop inflammation and mucus production without side effects, allowing you to regain control of your active life.