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How to manage seasonal allergies and enjoy the outdoors again

Christina Joseph By Christina Joseph

Melissa Woods, 46, has suffered from hay fever since she was a child, so she’s a pro at navigating allergy season. The Brooklyn attorney keeps her home as allergen-free as possible with frequent vacuuming and dusting. She monitors pollen counts daily. And she stocks her medicine cabinet with a range of remedies. Still, her symptoms threaten to keep her from what she loves to do: riding her bike. “If the pollen count is too heavy, I’ll just take a spin class because being outdoors is not worth the risk of an allergy attack,” she says.

Allergies are among the most common chronic health conditions, with 8% of American adults suffering from hay fever, formally called seasonal allergic rhinitis. Allergies are most prevalent during spring and fall, but peak months vary depending on where you live. While the usual suspects are outdoor allergens like pollen, your overactive immune system may become temporarily more sensitive to indoor pet dander and dust mites too.

For some people, allergies are more than a minor annoyance. They can impair your focus, hand-eye coordination and sleep cycles, hamper your routine and make you miserable. But the right treatment and lifestyle strategies can leave you breathing easier.

Get to know your triggers (again)

An allergy is simply an abnormal sensitivity or exaggerated reaction of the immune system to a substance, or allergen, in your environment. Our tolerance to allergens fluctuates over time, according to Neil Kao, MD, an allergist with the Allergic Disease and Asthma Center in Greenville, South Carolina. That’s why it pays to reevaluate your triggers every few years. Here’s how:

  1. Track your symptoms. When allergies act up, make note of the time of day, location and your activities, like mowing the lawn or doing housework.
  2. Pay close attention to the weather forecast. Rainstorms or warm winds can send pollen levels soaring, while mold grows quickly in humid heat.
  3. Check pollen counts. Try to figure out which varieties (tree, grass, ragweed) cause you the most discomfort, and what levels trigger your response. 

See the National Allergy Bureau’s website or The Weather Channel app for local pollen and mold reports.

A little sleuthing may help you deduce your allergens on your own. Or you can share your observations with your primary care physician or allergist.

If your symptoms include shortness of breath, persistent cough, chronic sinus infections or fever ― or if previous treatments have stopped working ― see your doctor to rule out asthma and other conditions that can mimic allergies.

Lifestyle hacks for effective allergy relief

Allergies can drain your energy in the same way as a cold or flu. “It’s OK to take a sick day sometimes when you feel really bad,” says Lynn Borteck, a social worker with Aetna’s Resources for Living who advises patients with chronic conditions. “Give yourself permission to take a time out.”

Once you’re ready to get back in the game, these strategies can help:

  • Change clothes and shoes when you get home, and take a quick shower before bed. Pollen collects on clothing and hair.
  • Wipe down windowsills and surfaces. Keep floors vacuumed or mopped, and limit rugs in the home.
  • Wear a filter mask when doing housework or yardwork to avoid inhaling allergens.
  • Run your air conditioner on the fan setting to trap allergens in the filter. Remember to rinse the filter every week or two.
  • Keep an allergy kit in your desk drawer and purse. Stock it with medication, tissues, eye drops and lotion for chapped skin.
  • If you wear contacts, switch to glasses when your eyes get itchy or watery.

Consider a complementary approach

Longtime allergy sufferers will try just about anything. Studies suggest that rinsing your sinuses to thin mucus and flush out allergens can be an effective add-on to standard treatment. A Neti pot is a centuries-old, teapot-like device designed to make that task easier. Over-the-counter saline nasal sprays ― with or without medication ― can also be effective.

Some people swear by a variation on the autoimmune protocol diet (AIP), designed for people with conditions like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and celiac disease. Sherri Alan, a 45-year-old mom of two from Coral Springs, Florida, fills her plate with fresh fruits, vegetables and minimally processed foods said to reduce inflammation. She often uses turmeric, a spice with anti-inflammatory properties, sprinkling it on salads and popcorn, or mixing it in tea and smoothies.

Easy medication adjustments

Most people with allergies are familiar with their over-the-counter options. But simple changes can make a world of difference. For instance, Dr. Kao says, “it’s best to start medication at the first sign of your symptoms ― or before ― rather than waiting until the symptoms are severe and more difficult to control.”

  • Antihistamines (Benadryl, Zyrtec, Allegra, Claritin, generic). Effective for reducing runny nose, sneezing and itchy eyes. Older formulas like Benadryl can be short-acting and make you sleepy. Tips: For itchy eyes, try antihistamine eye drops first. For nasal symptoms, some people find prescription antihistamine nasal sprays more effective than pills.
  • Decongestants (Sudafed, Afrin, generic). Relieve stuffiness and pressure from nasal and sinus congestion. Check with your doctor if you’re pregnant or take prescription beta blockers (decongestants cancel them out).
  • Nasal steroid sprays (Flonase, Nasonex, Nasacort). For severe symptoms, steroid sprays reduce congestion, headache, sneezing and itchy eyes. However, they take up to 12 hours to kick in, and you may not feel the full effect for a week. 

It might take a few tries before you arrive at the proper medication and dosage. Seniors are more likely to experience side effects and interactions with their other medications, so stay in touch with your doctor.

Is it time for allergy shots?

If you repeatedly call in sick to work during allergy season or you can’t enjoy any time outdoors, it may be time to consider immunotherapy, aka allergy shots. Shots are usually administered once a week for six to 10 months, then spaced out over three to five years. “When effective, in about 90 percent of people, it does raise the person’s immune tolerance significantly toward normal,” says Dr. Kao. “We would like for symptoms to be as minimal as possible. But it’s not a promise to be cured.”

Melissa began immunotherapy 10 years ago. “It has diminished my allergies substantially,” she says. “But not so much that I can switch up my routine.” (Your health insurance plan may cover allergy shots; Aetna covers immunotherapy for members with seasonal allergies.)

Melissa is determined to power through allergy symptoms this year. “I’m not going to let allergies keep me from enjoying the outdoors,” she says. “I’m pretty tough.”

About the author

Christina Joseph Robinson is a veteran editor and writer from New Jersey who still loves to read the old-fashioned newspaper. She’s raising two fruit-and-veggie loving daughters to balance all the treats Grandma sends their way. Christina’s health goal is to resume her workout routine after being sidelined by injuries.

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