Whatever your preferred outdoor activity, you’re probably itching to do it as winter comes to an end, but the last thing you want is your first spring hike or bike ride to get shut down by allergies. Here’s how to stay healthy on the trail— or the field, or the mountain— when springtime pollen is at your nose.
Start with knowledge
The best way to prepare for outdoor exercise when you have allergies is to know your triggers. If you already know you’re allergic to a certain pollen or mold, that’s a good start. If not, try to remember where you were the last time your allergies flared up. It might have been a certain body of water you ran by, or maybe it was a field along your hiking trail. Avoiding these triggers during the spring is your first line of defense.
If you can’t remember, start noting your flare-ups now, including location, weather, and air quality at the time. “Most people agree that pollen is most irritating when it is dry and windy, which is most likely early afternoon,” says Robert del Junco, medical director of the Nasal & Sinus Center at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, California. After logging symptoms for a while, you’ll notice patterns and be able to identify triggers for your allergies.
“Pollen count is highest between 5 a.m. and 10 a.m., and again at dusk, so plan your workouts for other times of the day when pollen levels are lower,” says Tonya Winders, CEO of the Allergy and Asthma Network.
If you’re getting a lot of rain this time of year, head out right after a storm. The rain snags pollen from the air as it falls, so air after rain is usually low in allergens. “It tends to be damper outside in the early morning and in the evenings,” del Junco says.
While these suggestions hold true in general, del Junco warns that there is a lot of conflicting information about when pollen counts are highest. Indeed, the U.S. has a varied climate system, so it’s best to check out what’s going on in your area ahead of time. You can check the air quality and pollen count before you go out by going to pollen.com and airnow.gov. “If you go out during high-pollen times, you can wear a face mask designed to filter out pollens,” Winders says.
Use medications wisely
If your doctor has prescribed a medication for your allergies, or if you have an inhaler for allergy-induced asthma, always use it as prescribed. Many experts recommend using an inhaler about 15 minutes before exercise to minimize the chances of an attack. And of course, if you have a rescue inhaler, don’t forget to bring it with you.
It’s also a good idea to call your doctor’s office and ask about planning your doses around your exercise— especially if your medications make you drowsy. If you have mild allergies that you treat with over-the-counter drugs such as antihistamines that can make you tired, try to take them two or three hours ahead of your activity.
Over-the-counter drugs are usually safe, but don’t overdo it, advises del Junco, who says long-term use can cause negative effects. “You may experience low blood pressure and heart palpitations, as well as occasional periods where it feels like your heart is racing,” he says. Chest tightness, an abnormal heartbeat or restlessness may indicate it’s time to see a physician, he adds.
So how much is too much? “If you require daily over-the-counter medication to alleviate your allergy symptoms, you need to be evaluated by a physician,” del Junco says.
When you get home after an outdoor sweat session, strip down and shower right away, making sure to thoroughly wash your hair. Even a small amount of allergens can cause trouble for hours on end if they’re that close to your face. “As soon as you get home, rinse out your nose with saline to remove pollen,” Winder advises.
If possible, toss those dirty clothes straight into the washing machine so any pollen on them doesn’t fly up when you come back to wash them. “It is also important to remove all exercise clothing from the bedroom and shower before bed to reduce pollens from the sleep zone,” Winder says.
“Try to keep the windows closed and limit exposure to other known allergens as much as possible during the peak of allergy season,” she adds. After all, seasonal allergies can attack at any time, not only when you’re outside.