For the lucky majority of the population, pollen is nothing more than a yellowish grit to be cleaned off windshields and patio furniture. But for the 35 million Americans with hay fever, pollen is pure misery. And this year, locals with hay fever are suffering more than usual. Is the pollen really worse, or is there something else going on?

The answers are yes, and yes. Part of the problem is that due to the drought, grasses are blooming earlier this year and overlapping with pollen release from other species like trees. But there’s a bigger issue that goes beyond the drought year. A study published last November by the Public Library of Science showed that as carbon dioxide levels increase, grasses not only produce more pollen, but pollen that contains more allergenic proteins. Studies on ragweed have found similar results. Researchers concluded that if climate change continues, it will have a significant worldwide impact on pollen production and allergens in grasses and other plants in the future.  

What causes an allergy attack?

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When you have an allergic reaction, your immune system mistakes a normally harmless protein (such as pollen grains) for a foreign and dangerous invader. Your body defends itself by producing antibodies which, in turn, signal mast cells to release a host of chemicals to fight off the foreigners. One of these chemicals is histamine, whose job it is to flush pollen from your eyes and nose, resulting in sneezing fits, runny nose, congestion, and watery, itchy eyes.  

These symptoms are why drugstore shelves are full of antihistamines like Claritin, Allegra, and Zyrtec. These meds can certainly help, but often come with side effects like drowsiness and brain fog. Some nasal sprays also provide relief but can saddle you with even worse rebound congestion when you stop using them.

To make it through hay fever season, the following three-part strategy can help.

1) Reduce your exposure to pollen and other irritants. Keep windows closed, use a HEPA air filter in your home, and vacuum often. Shower and wash your hair daily to keep pollen away from your face and out of your bed. When possible, avoid other irritants such as car exhaust, pesticides, perfumes, and cigarette smoke, which can exacerbate symptoms. And on windy days, it helps to stay indoors.

2) Get immediate relief. The following can help ease symptoms without the side effects of over-the-counter drugs:

Quercetin is a powerful bioflavonoid found in capers, onions, dill, kale, cranberries, buckwheat, and plums, which also comes in supplement form. It works by stabilizing the mast cells that release histamine. The recommended dose is 1,000 mg per day in divided doses. Quercetin accumulates in the body and works best when started about a month before the pollen flies. If you’ve missed that deadline, start anyway and continue through allergy season even if you feel relief.

Nettle (Urtica dioica). It seems counterintuitive, but the same plant that stings you in the wild can work as a powerful antihistamine when taken in supplement form. The recommended dose is two to three 300-mg freeze-dried capsules per day, though some people take much higher doses (at their own risk, of course.) If you prefer tinctures, follow product instructions.

Butterbur (Petasites hybridus). This herb has long been used in Europe to treat allergies, and has a number of studies to back it up. One of these, published in the British Medical Journal in 2002, found that butterbur was every bit as effective in treating hay fever as Zyrtec. What’s notable is that none of the study participants taking butterbur experienced drowsiness or fatigue, while two-thirds of those taking Zyrtec did. The recommended dose is 50 mg twice a day.

Nasal irrigation soothes membranes and rinses pollen and mucous from the nose and sinuses. You can buy nasal irrigation kits at the drugstore, or purchase a specialized neti pot from New Moon Natural Foods and make your own solution with 1 cup filtered (or pre-boiled) warm water, 1/4 teaspoon of non-iodized salt, and a pinch of baking soda. The technique is to lean over a sink, tilt your head to one side, and pour the solution into your upper nostril, letting it drain out the lower one. Repeat on the other side, and blow forcefully out of both nostrils. It takes a bit of getting used to, but it really is soothing.

3) Shore up immunity. Stay hydrated to keep nasal passages from drying out, and eat an anti-inflammatory diet high in fruits, vegetables, and Omega-3 fatty acids, found in salmon, walnuts, and flaxseed.

Many people find relief in chiropractic treatments and acupuncture. Be cautious when taking antibiotics; their use, particularly in childhood, is now being linked to an increase in allergies. If you must use antibiotics, follow up with probiotics to reestablish good bacteria in the gut.

And if you want to do one more thing to stave off allergies this year, well, it can’t hurt to pray for rain.

Author

  • Linda Lindsay has been writing health articles for Moonshine Ink since 2003. She has a degree in natural resources from Colorado State University, and has worked for the Yosemite Institute, Outward Bound, the Park Service, and Forest Service. She came to Tahoe in 1984 to check it out for a winter and never left. She lives in the Prosser area with her husband, daughter, two dogs, and a cat.

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    Truckee, CA 96161

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