Why You're So Sneezy All The Time

Blue skies, trees in bloom, park picnics, happy hour al fresco — sandal season has official arrived. Unfortunately, these sunny days don’t feel so welcoming if you’re one of the 50 million people in the U.S. who suffer from nasal allergies. The same green grass and colorful blossoms that make spring so beautiful are also responsible for releasing pollen into the air, thus keeping you curled up inside, sniffling and sneezing and feeling wiped out while everyone else is outside enjoying themselves.

More bad news: Allergies are getting worse, thanks to climate change, which causes longer pollen seasons. “Plants producing greater amounts of pollen due to rising greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, has likely led to a rising population of those who suffer from allergies,” says Clifford Bassett, MD, founder and medical director of Allergy and Asthma Care of New York.

Here, we’ve got the inside scoop on what’s causing your sniffles — plus, simple strategies to help you breathe easier.
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What Causes Allergies?

While our immune system usually does a pretty good job fending off intruders, it sometimes confuses the good guys with the bad. “The immune system can actually 'overreact' to normally harmless substances — such as pollen, mold spores, or pet dander — as if they are invaders, which causes an allergic reaction,” says Dr. Bassett.

When you have allergies, your body produces what are called Immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies after you’ve been exposed to an allergen. “These antibodies are specific to the substance, like ragweed or cat dander, and bind to mast cells in your body that help regulate your immune system,” explains Deborah Weichenberg, MD, an allergist-immunologist in New York City. “Next time you come in contact with the allergen, these antibodies cause the cells to release an inflammatory chemical, most commonly known as histamine, which leads to all those irritating symptoms like itchiness, redness, sneezing, congestion, and red, watery eyes.”

Who's Most At Risk?

If you get hit with hay fever, you can probably blame your parents: “The key to developing allergies is your family's genetics,” says Dr. Bassett. “If one parent suffers from some form of allergy, about one in three of their kids will, and if both parents have allergies, about two-thirds of their offspring are affected.”

Your environment also plays a role. A new study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives finds sensitivity to allergies is worse among those who were exposed to high levels of traffic-related air pollution during infancy. “Inhaling outdoor air pollution can cause inflammation in our airways that makes us more susceptible to allergies,” says Jonathan Psenka, ND, a naturopathic physician and author of Dr. Psenka’s Seasonal Allergy Solution: The All-Natural 4-Week Plan to Eliminate the Underlying Cause of Allergies and Live Symptom-Free. What’s more, research suggests our Western diet and obsession with cleanliness may alter gut bacteria that helps support our immune system, making us less equipped to deal with — and more likely to overreact to — pollen, dust, and the like. 
How To Get Relief

Antihistamines are the most common allergy aids and can be bought over-the-counter or through your doc in prescription strength. The meds are taken as a pill, a liquid, or a nasal spray and treat symptoms by prohibiting the release of inflammatory histamine. Be aware that drowsiness is a common side effect for some antihistamines, and plan accordingly. For those who need longer-lasting relief, allergy shots are the best bet. “Each week, you get a shot containing very small doses of the thing (or things) you’re allergic to, which helps to desensitize your body to the allergen,” says Dr. Weichenberg. “The process takes six months to a year — then, you shift to monthly maintenance shots — and is about 60-80% effective.”

New on the scene: sublingual immunotherapy. “It’s an alternative to shots, where a small dose of the allergen is placed under the tongue every day,” says Dr. Psenka. “What’s great about it is your health care provider will show you how to use it, and then you can use it at home.” The oral therapy was approved by the FDA in 2014, and recent research found it led to a 40% greater reduction in allergy and asthma symptoms when compared to other treatments, like antihistamines and nasal steroids. 

Simple lifestyle changes can also provide relief for those with indoor allergies. “Washing bedsheets regularly with hot water and using allergy-proof covers on pillows can be helpful for dust mite allergy sufferers, while those with pet allergies should bathe cats and dogs regularly — and keep them out of the bedroom — to minimize the spread of dander,” says Dr. Weichenberg. Taking your shoes off at the door will help keep you from tracking pollen around the house.

Natural Remedies That May Help

Saline rinsing with a neti pot, a teapot-looking device, may be helpful in flushing blocked nasal passages, says Dr. Weichenberg. “Even spending time at the beach in the salt air can have a similar effect,” she says.

An herb called butterbur is believed to help reduce hay fever symptoms. “For best results, you should begin using it about a month before your symptoms usually start,” says Dr. Psenka.

Another surprising solution: Decorate with houseplants. “Plants clean the air and improve oxygen content,” says Dr. Psenka. A study in HortScience found common houseplants significantly improved indoor air quality, reducing levels of pollutants from paints, varnishes, furnishings, and building materials that may lead to respiratory issues in some people.

Alternative Treatments (Proceed With Skepticism)

Eating local honey is often touted as a natural immunotherapy, helping desensitize the body to pollen spores the honeybees carry home with them to their hives. “Unfortunately, studies haven’t shown an appreciable difference between using local honey and placebo in providing allergy relief,” says Dr. Bassett.

Bee pollen is another holistic remedy that’s thought to retrain the body’s reaction to allergens, but use it with caution. “Bee pollen is very concentrated and needs to be taken in a small dose, or it can cause an allergic reaction,” says Dr. Psenka. “If you want to try local honey or bee pollen, consult your doctor first.”

The wackiest allergy aid we’ve encountered so far: worm therapy. The treatment involves using small doses of the eggs and larvae of parasitic worms to stimulate the immune system and treat chronic illnesses like asthma and allergies (as well as digestive disorders like IBS and Crohn's). “In studies where patients were given worms to swallow, it showed their allergy and GI symptoms improved — other illnesses, however, may be exacerbated,” Dr. Weichenberg says. "Worm therapy" is still in the clinical-study stage, so stick with your tried-and-true sniffle soothers for now.
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