'Tis once again the season -- of sniffling, sneezing, wheezing and itchy, bloodshot eyes.
As I was cruising the chockablock allergy-medication aisle at our local pharmacy last week, it occurred to me that I really should be doing more for my hay fever than just popping a pill every morning and praying for low pollen counts. So I started calling around, polling experts on the best, most effective home remedies and alternative treatments.
What I found offers at least some hope for what's shaping up to be yet another killer allergy season. "There are lots of nonpharmaceutical options, from preventive measures to acute symptom relief: You definitely don't have to be limited to your Claritin or Zyrtec," says Deirdre Orceyre, a naturopathic physician at the George Washington University Center for Integrative Medicine, who stresses that any treatment strategy should begin with overall good heath, including a diet filled with lots of fruits, vegetables and omega-3s; regular exercise; enough sleep; and as little stress as possible.
Then there's a plethora of proven lifestyle changes, herbs and other home remedies to choose from. "It's important to recognize that many of these methods have been used for decades and sometimes centuries, before the advent of pharmaceutical medicines," Orceyre says. "There's a lot of history there, far fewer side effects, and people respond positively."
Allergy experts agree that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. "Avoiding exposure (to pollen) on a day-to-day or hour-to-hour basis goes a long way," says Mike Tringale, a spokesman for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, which is based in Landover, Md.
The first, best line of defense? "Just taking a quick shower and changing your clothes" every time you enter your house, says Derek Johnson, medical director of the Fairfax (Va.) Allergy, Asthma and Sinus Clinic, who adds that since most plants pollinate in the early-morning hours, it's wise to postpone outside activity as much as possible until after noon or so.
It's also important to consider what, exactly, might be triggering symptoms inside your home, and then combat common offenders such as dust mites, pollen and mold, Tringale says. Specifically:
• Use a diluted bleach solution to clean and denature mold in basements and garages and on old patio furniture and the like, making sure to thoroughly dry all objects to prevent further growth.
• Get a good HEPA air filter and change it at least every two to three months to help prevent pollen and dander from being recirculated in your house.
• Looking ahead to summer allergies and a surge in humidity-happy dust mites, use a dehumidifier in moist areas such as the basement, says Tringale, who notes that it's essential to keep humidity levels below 50 percent to kill dust mites but above 30 percent, to avoid having dryness become an irritant.
• Launder bed linens at least once a week in 130-degree water (which is what it takes to kill dust mite eggs). And bear in mind that the default "hot" setting on many washing machines doesn't reach that temperature, so you may have to adjust your hot water heater.
• Bedroom items that can't be washed, such as pillows, mattresses and box springs, should be covered in tightly woven, hypoallergenic dust-mite covers. Stuffed animals and throw pillows should be kept to a bare minimum. As for real cats and dogs, wipe off their paws, and even wipe down their fur after they've been outside.
Because all this dusting and sweeping and spring cleaning can disturb allergens that have been sitting around all winter, Tringale recommends wearing a mask while doing house chores, to prevent additional exposure.
Allergist Jackie Eghrari-Sabet also cautions gardeners that "mulch and potting soils are full of mold that can actually trigger (an) allergic reaction."
Every expert I spoke to raved about the magic properties of a simple saline nasal rinse, which is available in many forms, from the somewhat intimidating but time-tested Neti pot to a basic spray bottle.
"The idea is that you ... help wash out the pollen that you've been breathing in all day long and also to naturally decongest," explains Eghrari-Sabet, who advises patients not to get carried away with this technique, since rinsing too often can make you more prone to sinus infections and other problems.
For those who need more than spring cleaning and saline, Orceyre says that there a number of herbal remedies and supplements that are worth trying, either on their own or in addition to over-the-counter or prescription drugs. For starters, she recommends freeze-dried stinging nettles, which may help alleviate runny nose and sinus congestion; eyebright, which soothes red, itchy, watery eyes; and the supplement quercetin, a bioflavonoid often found packaged with vitamin C, which can also be an effective antihistamine.
"None of these (therapies) have any negative side effects" such as drowsiness, dizziness and headaches, she says. Still, she recommends that people with chronic allergies see a health practitioner for guidance.
One substance that has gotten a lot of press recently is honey, which contains bee pollen. Johnson says there's no evidence that this will desensitize people to allergens (in the way that allergy shots do), but he notes that a spoonful of honey is an excellent cough suppressant.
Just as with traditional allergy medications, the best combination of natural remedies varies from one person to the next, experts say.
"There's no silver bullet with allergies, no matter which route you choose ... so there can be a fair amount of trial and error to figure out the right treatment plan," Eghrari-Sabet says. She suggests following up with a doctor for allergy testing if the sniffles, itchy eyes and wheezing get out of hand.
"It's much easier to combat (an allergy) when you know what the enemy is," she explains. "If we know what's attacking, then it's easier to direct someone to more specific treatments and therapies that will work best."