Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Navigating Allergies: Environmental & Respiratory

It's that time of year. Sneezing, coughing, watery eyes, itchy throat. My own doctor tells me this is the worst allergy season she's seen in over 25 years in California: highest average pollen count combined with the longest length of allergy season. And my client load shows me the same thing - most folks seem to be miserable right now. Even folks who normally don't get seasonal allergies have been having trouble. It's not just CA either; I'm hearing folks complaining all over the country right now about how bad their allergies are this year.

It's not just the pollen. In many areas, spring means wildly varying temperatures and levels of moisture. This can increase spores from molds and mildews (both indoors and outdoors). Spring also sometimes means more wind, which can exacerbate dust allergies. Pets often begin shedding in earnest, and many of us begin spending more time outdoors as the weather begins to improve. All of this serves to increase the ambient levels of particulate matter in the air and also puts us out in the middle of it more than during winter.

So what can we do to help manage allergy symptoms this season? There's lots of easy things you can do to help better manage your seasonal allergies. Here's 6 suggestions for where to start. Trying even just a few of these suggestions will hopefully make some difference, especially if your allergies are primarily seasonal/environmental in nature.

1) When in doubt, wash it off.

One of the best ways to reduce your environmental allergen exposure is to wash your face when you come in from outside. Even just rinsing your face with plain water can help. For more severe allergy sufferers, things like neti pots and saline nasal washes can be a huge help. I've been pretty happy with NeilMed and Xlear's saline irrigation products, but I'm sure there's others too.

You can also make your own nasal irrigation liquid - it's a basic saline solution. Boil 1 liter deionized, RO or distilled water to sterilize. Dissolve 9 grams sodium chloride into the water (pure sea salt, kosher, or pickling salts all will work fine for this purpose). Let cool and use. An additional 2-3 g food-grade baking soda can be added to buffer the solution, which will make it less harsh on your sinuses. *I would not advise using this solution for contact lenses: sinuses are far more forgiving than eyes*. Making your own saline is only useful/effective if you already own a neti pot, bulb syringe, or other apparatus for getting the saline into your nose safely and effectively... Follow some of the above links for instructions or to purchase nasal irritation equipment. It's a worthwhile investment, really.

2) Change your clothes!

If you have environmental allergies and you've been running around outside, you have to guess that you probably have some allergens clinging to your clothing. Change your clothes when you get inside. Again, this reduces the amount of particulate matter clinging to you and finding its way into your nasal passages. Another bit of advice - don't keep your dirty laundry in your bedroom. You don't need a pile of allergen-ridden dirty clothes near where you sleep.

3) Maintain a clean sleeping environment

Most of us spend 7-9 hours every day asleep. Is your bedroom a low-allergen zone? Sleep is the time when we heal, detoxify and rebalance. If we're not sleeping well, it's harder for our bodies to keep a handle on the amount of allergens and irritants coming our way while we're awake. If your bedroom is allergy-safe(r), it gives you a chance to get a break from the allergens for a few hours every day. This can help reduce the intensity of the allergy response, giving your immune system a chance to calm down.

Ways to improve the air quality in your bedroom include:
a) Run a HEPA air purifier 24/7 in your bedroom, keeping doors and windows closed
b) Consider hypo-allergenic bedding
c) Washing all bedding (especially pillow cases) once a week in hot water
d) Using unscented/hypoallergenic laundry products, especially to wash bedding
e) Wash your pillows! Or get new ones if your pillows are more than 5 years old. Remember, your face is going to be pressed up against that pillow for 7+ hours every day. Make sure the pillow and pillow case are clean enough that you would want to be in contact with them, for that amount of time, regularly.
f) Vacuum and dust your bedroom regularly
g) If possible, keep pets out of your bedroom (if you suspect pet hair is an issue, or if your pet
spends lots of time outside)

4) Get rid of unnecessary stinky products

Scented candles, air fresheners, potpourris, room sprays, scented oil burners and similar products all put additional particulate matter into the air. When allergy season is as severe as this year's has been so far, do yourself and everyone around you a favor and reduce or avoid using perfume. Even if you don't notice the smell of scented products, these fragrances contribute to the total load of what is ending up in your sinuses and lungs. The air is full of enough junk from the dust, molds and pollens. Consider reducing or eliminating these unnecessary (and in some cases, downright harmful) chemicals. Household cleaners and bodycare products may also contain chemicals that at best may exacerbate allergies and at worst may cause toxicity-related harm. For suggestions on safer alternatives, check out the Environmental Working Group's cosmetics database, or just look for unscented, hypoallergenic, and biodegradable products (if it's safe for a natural waterway, it should be safe for your body).

5) Reduce your exposure to things to which you already know you are allergic/reactive

Allergies are often described using the "bucket" model. Imagine a bucket. Now imagine you pour a little bit of water in. Then a bit of apple juice. Then some drain cleaner. Then some beer. At some point the total liquid level will cause the bucket to overflow. It doesn't matter which liquid you pour into the bucket, the bucket can only hold so much. Allergies are kinda like that. You may be a little allergic to pollen, a little allergic to milk, a little allergic to cats... and as long as your "bucket" isn't too full, you may either not have a reaction or just a mild one. But when the "bucket" is full, it doesn't matter how mild your allergy is - your system is already on allergy high-alert, so even small exposure to things that are normally only a small problem may exacerbate overall allergy response. In other words, now is not the time to be experimental. If you're already having allergies, try to limit your exposure to even minor allergens if you can. Even if normally those minor allergens are minor, your bucket is already probably pretty full due to the state of the overall air quality. So err on the side of caution right now around all suspected allergens. That includes food and topical allergens as well as respiratory/environmental - remember,the bucket is only so big, and may include all routes of exposure.

6) Reduce stress levels!

What does that have to do with allergies? Everything. Stress hormones change the way our immune system functions. Stress has been shown to exacerbate allergic response. Interestingly, stress may actually exacerbate what's known as "late-phase reactions", meaning stress may stretch out the duration of an allergy response, causing allergic responses to show up hours after an exposure and to last longer than what would be considered normal or usual. In theory this may cause a more mild allergy to manifest in a more severe (meaning possibly more dangerous) way.