How to Ease Seasonal Allergy Symptoms
Pollen may be hanging around almost all year, but these steps can keep you comfortable
Got itchy eyes and an alternately stuffy and runny nose? Feeling like allergy season seems to start earlier and end later?
It's true that due to climate change, there's more pollen in the air—and for a longer time—than there used to be, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology and the Environmental Protection Agency. (In the past, pollen season ran from April to mid-October. Now, depending on where you live, it can linger from February to November.) And pollen counts are expected to double by 2040, notes AAAAI.
Pollen-Proof Your Environment
One of the most effective strategies is also one of the most straightforward: reducing your exposure to allergens. So, monitor local pollen counts and try to stay indoors between 5 a.m. and 10 a.m. on days when counts are highest, recommends the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Other smart steps:
• Take a bedtime shower. This helps wash off pollen that’s collected on your skin and hair during the day so that you're not literally sleeping with allergens.
• Use an over-the-counter (OTC) saline nasal spray. This helps clear a clogged-up nose and wash out pollen and other allergens that may have accumulated there. You can use these products as often as you want, says Sandra Hong, M.D., an allergist at the Cleveland Clinic, but it’s a particularly good idea after you’ve been outdoors and before bed. (Skip nasal decongestant sprays, or use them only for a couple of days, because they can cause rebound congestion.)
• Banish Buddy from the bedroom. Even if you’re not allergic to your cat or dog, keep pets off your bed—and if possible, out of the room entirely—if they spend any time outdoors. Their fur can harbor pollen.
• Run the air conditioner. You may be tempted to throw your windows open, but those lovely breezes can carry pollen into your home. “You want to keep doors and windows closed, so no pollen can get in,” Lockey says. An air purifier might help, too: See Consumer Reports’ air purifier buying guide here.
• Vacuum regularly. This can help pick up stray pollen particles that float into your home, as well as allergens such as pet dander and dust mites. CR's tests found that some vacuums with regular filters sucked up similar amounts of dander and dust as those with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, and some were just as good at keeping these small particles from blowing back into the air. (See more on our vacuum tests here, and a few product picks below.) Have someone else do your vacuuming, and avoid bagless vacuums, which can stir up dust when you empty them.
• Keep your lawn tidy. Short grass is less likely to release pollen than taller grass, so mow regularly. If possible, have someone else mow it. If you do it yourself, wear a face mask (like an N-95 filter mask), available at hardware stores, as well as sunglasses to prevent pollen from blowing into nose, mouth, and eyes. Regularly clean your gutters and downspouts, too.
Take the Right Meds at the Right Time
Allergen avoidance techniques may not always be enough. Here's the rundown on common medications and when it's appropriate to consider them.
Oral antihistamines. If you have mild seasonal allergy symptoms when you’re outdoors—but feel better once you’re inside—it’s reasonable to try a once-a-day OTC antihistamine.
These drugs, available in chewable, liquid, and tablet form, can be taken daily until the end of allergy season. They work by blocking histamine, the symptom-causing substance released by your body when it comes in contact with an allergen.
Stick with what’s known as a “second-generation” antihistamine: cetirizine (Zyrtec and generic), fexofenadine (Allegra and generic), and loratadine (Claritin and generic). They're less likely to cause sedation than older antihistamines, such as chlorpheniramine (Chlor-Trimeton Allergy and generic); clemastine (Tavist and generic); brompheniramine (Dimetapp and generic); and diphenhydramine (Benadryl Allergy and generic).
Though the newer antihistamines all appear to be equally safe and effective, some people may respond better to one than another. So if, for example, cetirizine doesn’t seem to help, try fexofenadine or loratadine, Hong says.
Steroid nasal sprays. If your symptoms persist even when you’re inside, include nasal stuffiness, and make you so uncomfortable that it’s hard to sleep and go about your day-to-day activities, the new guidelines now recommend opting for a daily prescription or OTC nasal steroid spray, such as fluticasone (Flonase, Flonase Allergy Relief, and generic) or triamcinolone acetonide (Nasacort, Nasacort Allergy 24HR, and generic).
These drugs reduce swelling and mucus in your nasal passageways, and though some people report feeling better within a day, they usually take a couple weeks to reach maximum effectiveness. It’s fine to take an OTC oral antihistamine for a week or so while you wait for the spray to begin working.
But after that, don’t bother. “The new guidelines don’t recommend it, since research shows that it isn’t any more effective than using a steroid spray alone,” says guideline author Mark Dykewicz, M.D., director of the allergy & immunology fellowship program at St. Louis University in Missouri.
Antihistamine nasal sprays. If you’ve been faithfully using a nasal steroid for a couple of weeks and you’re still uncomfortable, the guidelines recommend adding in a daily prescription nasal antihistamine spray, such as azelastine (Astelin, Astepro, and generic) or olopatadine (Patanase and generic).
“A nasal antihistamine seems much more effective than taking a pill by mouth—it may be that since it goes directly into the nasal passages, the nose gets a much higher concentrated dose,” Lockey explains.
Reduce Your Reaction to Allergens
Still not finding sufficient relief from seasonal allergy symptoms, and/or have year-round allergies that are very bothersome? You might find immunotherapy useful.
This prescription treatment involves exposing you to ever-larger amounts of allergens, gradually increasing your tolerance.
Traditional immunotherapy is delivered via regular shots—often for three to five years—and can help with seasonal and year-round allergens. “Over 80 percent of the time, people experience relief,” Hong says. The shots carry a small risk of a severe allergic reaction, so you’ll need to have them in a doctor’s office.
If your seasonal allergies are to grasses and/or you’re allergic to dust mites, you might look into a newer prescription option: sublingual immunotherapy, or SLIT. Here, you typically place a dissolvable tablet containing purified extracts of allergens under your tongue.
Currently, four treatments approved by the Food and Drug Administration are available: Odactra, for house dust mite allergies, Oralair, for five different grass pollens, Grastek, for Timothy grass allergies, and Ragwitek, for ragweed allergies.
“This is a really good option for people who are allergic to these types of pollen but aren’t seeing improvement on nasal and antihistamine sprays, or develop other complications from these allergies, such as sinus infections or asthma,” Hong says.
For grass and ragweed, you’ll need to begin treatment about three months before these allergens pop up. If you’re using them to treat dust mite allergy, you’ll stay on them year-round. SLIT may cause mild side effects, such as itchy or irritated mouth and throat, and nausea or abdominal discomfort. Severe reactions appear to be quite rare.
If you're looking for a vacuum that can help keep your indoor air cleaner, a bagged model (since bagless models can create a dust cloud during emptying) with a HEPA filter and an excellent emissions rating from our testers may be a good option.
Consider the two potential picks below, or read more about the best vacuums for people with allergies.
Reducing Allergens at Home
Allergies got you down? On the "Consumer 101" TV show, Consumer Reports experts explain how to reduce dust mites and other triggers in your home.