Many plant varieties can cause hay fever, but the 17 varieties of ragweed that grow in North America pose the biggest threat. Three out of four people who are allergic to pollen are allergic to ragweed.
A hardy annual, ragweed thrives just about anywhere turf grasses and other perennials haven’t taken root -- along roads and riverbanks, in vacant lots, and so on. Over the course of a single year, one ragweed plant can produce a staggering one billion grains of pollen. And it doesn’t fall harmlessly to the ground. It floats on the breeze. Pollen has been found hundreds of miles out to sea and two miles up into the atmosphere.
1. Make Your Home a Pollen-Free Haven
As much as possible during ragweed season, keep your windows shut and the air conditioner on (and do the same while in your car). “Running the air conditioner will also help remove moisture from the air, which helps prevent the growth of mold,” says James Stankiewicz, MD, chairman of the department of otolaryngology at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. “Mold can aggravate hay fever symptoms.”HEPA air filters can be helpful, especially if your home is carpeted. One per room is best, says Christine Franzese, MD, assistant professor of otolaryngology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson. If that’s not in the cards, get one for the room where you spend most of your time -- presumably your bedroom. You might also consider getting a HEPA vacuum cleaner -- otherwise, vacuuming might just stir up pollen rather than remove it.
2. Wear a Mask
A surgical-style facemask isn’t going to be 100% effective at protecting you from pollen -- “you’d need a full-body hazmat suit to do that,” says Franzese. But a mask can cut your exposure substantially, and is worth donning when you venture outside to garden, mow the lawn, exercise, and so on.
Look for a facemask with an “N95” rating from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). You should be able to pick one up at a drugstore or home supply store.
“I know it’s no fun to wear a mask, but it really will help you from breathing in all that pollen and mold,” says Kao. “The key is to use it properly. It should fit tightly around the mouth and nose -- feel around it to make sure no air is coming in around the edges.”
3. Wash Up
Whenever you come in from outside, wash your face and hands. If you’ve been exposed to outdoor air for quite a while, shower and change into fresh clothes.
If you share your home with a furry friend that ventures outdoors, brushing and bathing it outside will help prevent pollen from being tracked inside.
4. Watch What You Eat
Because they contain proteins similar to the ones in ragweed, certain foods can exacerbate allergy symptoms. Steer clear of banana, melons, and chamomile.
5. Rinse Out Your Nose
Nasal douching -- using a salt-water solution to wash pollen from your nostrils and sinuses -- can be very effective at curbing hay fever symptoms. A quick spritz in each nostril is not enough, experts say.
Use a neti pot or an over-the-counter irrigator, such as those sold under the brand names Ocean and Ayr.
6. Track Pollen Counts
On days when the pollen count is especially high, stay indoors. For reliable pollen (and mold spore) counts in your area, go to http://www.aaaai.org/nab/index.cfm.
If these pollen-avoidance strategies fail to bring relief, medical therapy may be in order. Nonprescription antihistamines, such Claritin and Zyrtec, are generally the first choice for mild to moderate symptoms (no need to pay extra for brand names, as generics cost less and work just as well).
If you’re bothered by congestion as well as sneezing and a runny, itchy nose, adding a decongestant such as Sudafed should help. There are also antihistamine-decongestant combinations available. These products generally include a “D” in the name, as in Tavist D. (If you have high blood pressure, ask your doctor if taking a decongestant is OK. Some cause a potentially dangerous rise in blood pressure.)