Who likes getting a runny nose or itchy eyes when allergies flare up? Talk to any allergy sufferer and they will agree it's never fun. Your goal is to minimize your reactions as much as possible, but you may not realize that seemingly harmless daily habits or things in your environment could make your symptoms even worse. To keep them in check this season, learn what common culprits are not your friends when it comes to allergies.
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 Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America estimates up to a third of pollen allergy patients may be affected. You can blame a protein found on the surface of some raw produce, including apples, tomatoes, and cantaloupe, though each pollen allergy has its own set of trigger foods.
"Pollen and food proteins are like first cousins," said Dr. Cliff Bassett, 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, Dr. Bassett said. Even cooking the produce may help. Just be careful—research shows about 2 percent of people with OAS have symptoms than can progress to potentially life-threatening anaphylactic shock, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
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 Dr. David Rosenstreich, director of Allergy and Immunology at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, New York.
Soft contact lenses especially are prone to absorbing airborne irritants, like pollen or smoke, because they're permeable. A soft lens lets more oxygen through but can absorb anything in the tears, said Dr. Steven Shanbom, a board-certified ophthalmologist out of metro Detroit. If you're set on wearing contacts and don't like hard lenses, you may want to look into disposable ones you can throw out daily to prevent pollen buildup.
Stress leaves you on edge—and more prone to sniffles. A recent study in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology tracked the stress levels of 179 people with hay fever. Over two 14-day periods, Ohio State University researchers found that 64 percent who reported higher stress levels also experienced more than four flare-ups. The good news is there's an easy solution to this allergy trigger: chill out. Whether it's meditation or getting some shut-eye, find things to help you relax so your symptoms are more bearable.
"When you don't feel well and you're anxious, that's when your symptoms tend to be worse," Rosenstreich said.
Ever felt stuffed-up after drinking a glass of red wine? You're not alone. Alcohol, and 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," Rosenstreich said.
These compounds occur naturally in both beer and wine. A Danish study in Clinical & Experimental Allergy found that women who had more than 14 drinks a week were 78 percent more likely to develop a perpetually stuffy nose compared to women who drank less.
Taking the wrong medication
Walking down the allergy meds aisle at the pharmacy can prove overwhelming—there are dozens of drugs to choose from and they all promise to cure your sniffles and sneezing. But most of them can be lumped into one of two categories: antihistamines and decongestants. The trick is knowing which over-the-counter medications will best treat your symptoms. An antihistamine typically relieves sneezing, itchiness, and runny nose, while decongestants combat congestion from swollen nasal passages. Some drugstore options may come packaged with both, but you would only need to use a decongestant if your nose is stuffed up in addition to your other symptoms. If bothersome symptoms persist, that's when you should really see an allergist, Basset said.
Perfume and candles
Anything with fragrance added can irritate the lining of the eyelids and nasal passages, said 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.
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," Rosenstreich said. "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 to a smaller space.
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—cling to dust and pollen. Washing after every wear is essential during allergy season, said Rosenstreich, so you'd be better off stocking up on duds made from cotton or other easily cleaned materials. You may also consider washing your wardrobe in hot water—people who washed their clothes in 140-degree water had fewer allergens on their clothes than those who cleaned items in colder water. (No report on how much their clothes shrunk, so proceed at your own risk.)
Bathing in the morning
Pollen doesn't just cling to your clothes. It also sticks to skin and hair.
"The tiny particles land on you like dust,"Rosenstreich said. "The problem with pollen is that you can't see it in the air."
If you're waking up stuffed every morning, taking a shower before bed will help wash away the allergens attaching to your body. Can't live without your morning shower? Be sure to at least shake out your hair and wash your face before you hit the hay.
Your allergies are likely to be worse on dry, sunny, and windy days. Why? Because those are ideal conditions for trees to release pollen, meaning more of it will be in the air, Rosenstreich said. Combined with the wind blowing pollen all around, that makes for a bad day for allergies. Drizzly and overcast days can also be an allergy foe: light precipitation stirs up the pollen in the air, causing it to rupture and disperse the tiny particles. Stormy days are the most friendly to allergy sufferers: the heavy rain washes the pollen out of the air, providing temporary relief.
Add allergy problems to the long list of health issues associated with smoking. A study in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology looked at the effect that tobacco smoke had on individuals with ragweed allergy. Researchers found that levels of an allergen antibody IgE were 16.6 times higher in people exposed to both secondhand smoke and ragweed than those exposed to ragweed and clean air. Just like candles and perfume, smoke is an irritant that can mess with your respiratory tract, so it's best to keep your exposure to a minimum.