For nearly 36 million Americans, spring comes with a major buzzkill: allergies. And natural allergies are only getting more severe. Allergies to pollen, ragweed, and other common airborne triggers have doubled in the past 20 yearsÃ¢â‚¬”a 5 percent per decade increase since the 1970sÃ¢â‚¬”clogging up even those who've always been sniffle-free.
Plus, allergy seasons are longer. "Hay fever is typically caused by trees in the spring, grasses in the summer, and ragweed in the fall," explains Paul R. Epstein, M.D., associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School. But thanks to global warming, our growing seasons are lengthening. "In some states, spring is coming 10 to 14 days earlier than it did 20 years ago," says Kim Knowlton, Dr.P.H., a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council's Health and Environment program. And that trend is likely to continue.
Get a grip on your allergies by crushing your culprits first:
Pollen is growing out of control. In case you've erased ninth-grade bio from your brain, here's a recap: To grow, plants require sunlight, water, warmth, and carbon dioxide. But these days they're getting way more of those last two than they need. "Ten years ago we thought, OK, more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere means more energy for plants, so they'll grow better," Epstein says. Weeds (such as ragweed), however, aren't merely flourishing; they're reproducing like jackrabbits. And there's not just extra pollen circulating around your schnozÃ¢â‚¬”the CO2 overload has also led to a kind of superpollen that's more allergenic, so that just a teeny amount can get your nose running.
Before you move into the basement, check the forecast. Find your area's pollen, mold spore, and ozone levels at the sites of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (aaaai.org/nab/index.cfm) or the public-service organization AirNow (airnow.gov). On days when the Air Quality Index is above 150 (100 if you know you're allergy- or asthma-prone), stay behind closed doors as much as you can.
Another reason allergies are so rampant? Allergens are invading your body more aggressively. Pollution and smog add ozone and billions of diesel particles to the air, and pollen and pollution are not a good combination. "Pollen grains hitch a ride on these particles, which carry them deeper into your lungs, where they can get lodged inside," Epstein says.
So keep windows shut on bad air-quality days. If things get stuffy, "consider running an air conditioner with a good filter, which traps allergens from outside air," says Jeffrey Siegel, Ph.D., associate professor in the department of civil, architectural, and environmental engineering at the University of Texas. "Just change the filter often, and avoid devices that emit ozone, like ion-generating air purifiers."
Make a costume change when you come inside. That way you won't trek pollen and dust all over your house after gardening or hiking. On laundry day, wash your grubbiest duds in hot water (140Ã‹Å¡F) to kill 100 percent of allergy-causing dust mites and most pollen. (Run regular loads on warm then rinse in cold water twice to kill at least 65 percent of dust mites.)
Don't forget to slip on some shades, too. Do you spend the spring months looking like an extra in Harold and Kumar's last adventure? Sunglasses can clear things up by keeping pollen off your lashes and lids.
Last but not least, don't be so rough on yourself. A 2007 study published in Trends in Immunology found that scrubbing with harsh, abrasive soaps and other products can strip away a layer of protective cells on your skin and actually allow allergens to penetrate.