Putting Allergies Out of Work

Have allergies got you falling asleep on the job?

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on March 31, 2009
4 min read

Sneezing, wheezing, and too tired to do your job? If you have allergies at work, this probably sounds familiar.

Maybe you’re up all night with miserable allergy symptoms, but you force yourself to go to work anyway. Once there, you’re so fatigued that you got nothing done -- and end up going home early.

Maybe your allergy medications knock you out. Sure, they control your allergy symptoms, but they also zap your energy and make you inattentive on the job.

Or maybe something at work is kicking your allergies into high gear. Once you walk in the door, you can feel them getting worse.

You don’t have to let allergies make you miserable at work. You can manage allergy symptoms and improve your concentration by following these three steps:

  • Understand the problem of allergies at work
  • Identify workplace allergy triggers
  • Find the best allergy medicine

Many patients complain of increased allergies when there’s high stress at work, says Gailen Marshall, MD, PhD, director of the division of clinical immunology and allergy at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson.

People often think the allergy trigger is a work-related exposure. But Marshall tells WebMD that stress from work deadlines, conflicts with co-workers, and long hours can all increase allergy symptoms.

If your allergies make you feel exhausted at work, the reason why may be more than just a bad night’s sleep.

“Blame your overactive immune system,” says Greg Martin, MD, an assistant professor of medicine in the division of pulmonary, allergy and critical care at Emory University in Atlanta. Persistent, ongoing activation of the immune system triggers chronic inflammation, and this causes fatigue, Martin tells WebMD. Here’s how it works:

  • Allergies are characterized by inflammation
  • Inflammation produces substances called cytokines
  • Cytokines move from our nose through the bloodstream and into our brain, causing allergy symptoms that tell us we are sick

In fact, Marshall says that fatigue is a key symptom of allergies. When allergies are poorly treated, you also get symptoms such as nasal congestion and snoring that can ruin sleep, he says.

Allergy medicines can also contribute to fatigue. Some of the older antihistamines -- such as Benadryl or Dimetapp -- induce sleep in most people. Even decongestants that are stimulants, such as pseudoephedrine (Sudafed), can change people’s sleep patterns. If you take them together, it may be easy to fall asleep but the sleep may not be as refreshing, so you can feel really tired even if you slept eight hours or more.

Newer antihistamines such as Allegra, Claritin, or Zyrtec are less likely to cause drowsiness.

Allergies don’t just follow you to work; they can be triggered there as well. Dust mites, pollens, and molds are common and invisible allergy triggers in the workplace. These allergens get trapped in tightly insulated and poorly ventilated office buildings. While you can’t see them, you can feel their impact.

Environmental hazards can also trigger allergies at work. These fumes cause dizziness, shortness of breath, and respiratory distress. If you have ever sniffed cleaning fluid in a non-ventilated area, you know that chemicals can make it hard to breathe.

Go through your workplace to look for allergy triggers that may bother you. Common allergens include:

  • Aerosols
  • Chemical fumes
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Cockroaches
  • Cold air
  • Dust
  • Fresh paint
  • Humid air
  • Mold and mildew
  • Perfume and scented products (from co-workers)
  • Pet dander (from co-workers’ clothing)
  • Pollen
  • Tobacco smoke and wood smoke
  • Weather fronts
  • Wind

Depending on your job, you may also be exposed to:

  • Animal-derived material (such as dander and secretions)
  • Plant and vegetable products (cotton or grain dust)
  • Wood dusts
  • Chemicals
  • Dyes
  • Fumes
  • Salts

Marshall suggests these ways to manage your allergies on the job.

  • Make sure your work area is well ventilated and has proper humidity to minimize molds. Marshall suggests less than 50% humidity for an indoor office.
  • See to it that your work area is dusted regularly.
  • If you clean your own workplace, protect your nose with a mask.

What if you’re a painter or do construction work? “Then your ability to reduce exposure to allergy triggers is limited,” says Martin. In fact, it may be difficult to change your work environment without losing your job. In that case, you may want to talk to your doctor about the best allergy medications for you.

Uncontrolled allergies at work can make it difficult to focus for two reasons, says Martin, “because of allergy symptoms or the medicine you take.”

To stay alert with allergies at work, try a non-sedating antihistamine such as Allegra or Claritin. If these do not provide total relief, ask your doctor about a nasal steroid spray. There are also non-sedating oral medications that help control allergies, such as Singulair.

Remember also that decongestants usually have pseudoephedrine (Sudafed), a stimulant. “The decongestants may counter the drowsiness from antihistamines,” says Martin.