Your Ultimate Allergy Survival Guide

Ericka McConnell
Most springtime sneezers—some one in five Americans—are aware they've got allergies. But knowing how best to treat them is another story. Drugstore aisles are stacked high with an array of pills, capsules, sprays, mists, and drops, and that's before you even get to the prescription options. The upside of all those choices, though, is "there is no need to suffer with seasonal allergies—good treatment is available," says Gainesville, Georgia, allergist Andy Nish, MD. The key to finding the products that will do the most for you, he says, is to first determine the severity, frequency, and duration of your symptoms, which may include sneezing, runny nose, nasal congestion, itchy throat, and itchy, watery eyes.

• Your allergies are mild if you get a twitchy, itchy nose and watery eyes while hanging around outside during pollen season (from early spring to early summer, depending on where you live). It's a nuisance, but not really life-altering.

• Your allergies are moderate if you have sneezing fits or need tissues even when you're inside, and if you're congested enough that you have trouble sleeping or wake up with a sore throat, affecting how you feel over the course of your day.

• Your allergies are severe if you're just plain miserable all the time: Your nose is constantly congested or running, you carry tissues 24/7, you go into frequent sneezing fits, and your eyes are incredibly red, puffy, and itchy. Your throat may even get so sore and itchy that you wonder if you're sick. (You're not.) Suffice it to say, your symptoms consume your life.

Now that you know where you fall on the allergy scale, here's how to find the right remedies for your symptoms.

If your allergies are mild
It sounds like a no-brainer, but every allergy doc worth his degree will urge you to avoid exposure to pollen—produced by trees, grass, weeds, and flowers—as much as possible during peak allergy hours (generally noon through late afternoon). Of course, you can't stay inside all the time, so pop an over-the-counter antihistamine such as Zyrtec, Allegra, or Claritin every day before you head into the great outdoors. These drugs work by blocking the effects of histamine, a chemical your body produces to attack invaders like pollen—launching such immune reactions as watery eyes and sneezes. Which antihistamine should you pick? In the end, all antihistamines on the market work the same way, but different people respond differently (both positively and negatively) to each one; trial and error is the only way to find the product that's best for you, says Paul M. Ehrlich, MD, president-elect of the New York Allergy & Asthma Society.

Got a stuffy nose? Consider using an antihistamine with an added decongestant—look for a "D" or the word "sinus" in the name (think Claritin-D or Benadryl Allergy and Sinus). Decongestants relieve clogging by shrinking swollen tissues and blood vessels, which also shuts down the feedback loop that keeps mucus flowing. (Don't take decongestants if you're pregnant or have hypertension.)

Itchy eyes? Use over-the-counter eyedrops such as Zaditor or Alaway.

Still reaching for the tissues? Try using NasalCrom, a mild OTC nasal spray, especially a few hours before you know you're going to be out in nature, says Tim Mainardi, MD, senior fellow in allergy and immunology at Columbia University Medical School. It prevents mast cells—which are like "little land mines full of histamine," says Dr. Mainardi—from blowing up and releasing their symptom-causing goods.

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Aviva Patz
Last Updated: April 01, 2012

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