Allergies can put a serious crimp in gardening: A runny nose, itchy eyes, or a wheezing and persistent cough can drive allergy sufferers indoors during the growing season.
But there are many things you can do to reduce those irritations and remain a dedicated gardener.
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Start by determining what's causing your allergies. See an allergist for tests to define the problem. Then you can garden smarter by avoiding plants that give off harmful pollen, and working only when fewer spores are in the air.
An estimated 50 million Americans have seasonal allergy problems, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. The cause is pollen from plants, trees, grasses, weeds and mold spores.
Peak season usually is March through October, but that varies by region. Tree pollen can be a problem for allergy sufferers as early as January in the South.
The degree of distress ranges from annoying to life threatening.
"For most individuals, the gardening allergies do, in fact, affect their quality of life, especially during the seasons," said Dr. Clifford Bassett, director of Allergy and Asthma Care of New York. "However, some folks with allergic asthma may experience a flare or exacerbation of their respiratory symptoms that may become more serious, and necessitates them to refrain from or curtail gardening activities."
Some allergy avoidance tips:
• Gear up. Medications suggested by a doctor or pharmacist usually relieve the symptoms, said Leonard Perry, an extension horticulturist with the University of Vermont and an allergy sufferer. "Those should be begun a couple of weeks prior to the onset of a particular allergy season so the body can adjust and be ready," he said.
• Wear a mask. Simple paper masks leak, said Dr. Richard Weber, an allergist and president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. For more sensitive allergy sufferers, he said, "it makes more sense to get the more sophisticated masks with respirators on each side of your face."
• Planting sites: Be careful where you grow things. "It's a common practice to use evergreens as foundation plants, yet they're pretty allergy-making," Weber said. "Imagine somebody sensitive having a juniper outside their bedroom window in summer. They'd have lots of trouble."
• Check the daily pollen count. Avoid direct outside exposure on high pollen days when it is sunny, dry and windy, Bassett said. Pollen levels generally are lower in early morning and late evening, as well as on cloudy, windless and wet days.
• Eliminate problem plants, especially weeds that can aggravate late summer and fall allergies, Bassett said. Choose plants that are less likely to cause allergies, such as azalea, bulbs, cacti, daisies, dahlia, pansies and petunias, dogwood trees, hibiscus, boxwood and yucca shrubs.
• Clean up when done. "Drop your clothing in a utility room and go shower," Weber said. The pollen is "in your hair, eyelashes and nose. Do a saltwater wash in your nose and get it out. That probably helps more than any other item."