Triggers That Make Seasonal Allergies Worse

Keep your runny nose, itchy eyes, and sniffles in check by minding these foes during allergy season.

Man blowing his nose

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Allergies are already the worst, but did you know you could be unintentionally making them even more unbearable?

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Produce With Pollen-Like Proteins

If you're sneezing and sniffling, you could also have a problem eating some fruits and veggies. It's called oral allergy syndrome (OAS), and the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI) estimates that as many as 50%-75% of people allergic to birch tree pollen may be affected. You can blame a protein found on the surface of some raw produce, including apples, tomatoes, and cantaloupe.

According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (ACAAI), each type of pollen allergy has its own set of trigger foods. "Pollen and food proteins are like first cousins," said Cliff Bassett, MD, founder of Allergy and Asthma Care in New York City. "So your body thinks you're swallowing pollen." This usually leads to bothersome symptoms, like an itchy throat and mouth as well as cough.

Peeling produce may help to reduce your reaction, said Dr. Bassett. Even cooking the produce may ease symptoms. Just be careful—research shows that nearly 2% of people with OAS have symptoms than can progress to potentially life-threatening anaphylactic shock, according to the ACAAI.

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Contact Lenses

When the pollen counts get bad, you may want to stick to wearing your glasses. "If you trap pollen in your eyes and it stays there, you may experience more problems," said David Rosenstreich, MD, chief of the Division of Allergy and Immunology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and director of the Bronx Asthma Project.

Soft contact lenses are especially prone to absorbing airborne irritants, such as pollen or smoke, because they're permeable. A soft lens lets more oxygen through but can absorb anything in the tears, said Steven Shanbom, MD, a Detroit-based board-certified ophthalmologist. If you're set on wearing contacts and don't like hard lenses, you may want to look into daily disposable ones to prevent pollen from building up with multiple uses.

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Stress puts you on edge—and more prone to sniffles. A 2021 study published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences suggests that hormones related to stress—such as cortisol—stimulate mast cell production, the cells associated with allergic inflammation in the nose. The good news is there's a solution to this allergy trigger: chill out. "When you don't feel well and you're anxious, that's when your symptoms tend to be worse," said Dr. Rosenstreich.

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Ever felt stuffed up after drinking a glass of red wine? You're not alone. Alcohol—red wine in particular—can make allergies go haywire. "Some people are very sensitive to the sulfites, and it makes their allergies a lot worse," said Dr. Rosenstreich. These compounds occur naturally in both beer and wine.

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Taking the Wrong Medication

Walking down the allergy meds aisle at the pharmacy can be overwhelming—there are dozens of drugs to choose from, and they all promise to cure your sniffles and sneezing. While there are many options for allergy medications, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), most of them can be lumped into one of three primary categories: antihistamines, decongestants, and corticosteroids.

The trick is knowing which OTC medications will best treat your symptoms. An antihistamine typically relieves sneezing, itchiness, and runny nose, while decongestants combat congestion from swollen nasal passages. Corticosteroids relieve swelling and itchiness. If bothersome symptoms persist, that's when you should really see an allergist, said Dr. Bassett.

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Perfume and Candles

Products containing added fragrance can irritate the lining of the eyelids and nasal passages, said Dr. Bassett. That includes perfume, scented candles, incense, and holiday decorations. Whether you're in a department store or walking down the street, it's nearly impossible to avoid every smell out there, so your best defense is to eliminate these irritants from your home and to medicate yourself to ease symptoms when you encounter them in public.

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Swimming in a chlorinated pool—and even just sitting near one—can be just as bad for your allergies as candles and perfume. "Chlorine is an irritating gas and will do the same thing that fumes will," said Dr. Rosenstreich. "If you can smell it, that means it's getting in your body." Indoor pools are worse than outdoor ones because the chlorine is contained in an enclosed space.

Also, beware of cleaning products that contain bleach. Though the percentage of chlorine in a typical household spray or cleanser is less than that in a pool, the concentration may be enough to irritate some people.

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Your Clothes

That delicate wool sweater you wear three times before washing? It's terrible for your allergies. Clothes—especially those made from rough or sticky fabrics like wool—attract dust and pollen. Washing after every wear is essential during allergy season, said Dr. Rosenstreich, so you'd be better off stocking up on duds made from cotton or other easily cleaned materials.

You may also consider running your clothes through the dryer. In a 2020 study published in the International Archives of Allergy and Immunology, researchers found that a mechanical dryer effectively removed pollen off both wet and dry fabrics.

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Skimping on Showers

Pollen doesn't just cling to your clothes. It also sticks to skin and hair. "The tiny particles land on you like dust," said Dr. Rosenstreich. If you're waking stuffed up every morning, taking a shower before bed may help wash away the allergens attaching to your body—although it might not get it all off.

In a 2020 study published in the journal Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology, researchers had participants wash their hands according to the World Health Organization's (WHO) protocol for hand-washing and drying. After one hand-washing, between 0.36% and 2.74% of the initial pollen load remained on the hands and trace amounts of certain pollens remained after several hand-washings. While you might not get all the pollen off with a shower, rinsing off before bedtime may ease symptoms.

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Your allergies are likely to be worse on dry, sunny, and windy days when trees release pollen into the air and gusts spread it around, said Dr. Rosenstreich. Drizzly and overcast days can also incite symptoms: Light precipitation stirs up the pollen in the air, causing it to rupture and disperse the tiny particles. Results of a 2020 study published in Environmental Science & Technology Letters suggest that conditions associated with thunderstorms, especially, allow for pollen rupture and that the pollen fragments remain in the atmosphere for several hours.

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Cigarette Smoke

Add allergy problems to the long list of health issues associated with smoking. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), "both cigarette smoking and secondhand smoke are associated with chronic hay fever and sinus infections." While the reasons are unclear, the NIEHS says that smoke from cigarettes contains hundreds of chemicals, and some of them act as irritants to worsen symptoms in people with asthma and allergies.

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