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After months of indoor exercise, it's finally warm enough to ditch the treadmill and hit the trails to get your sweat on. You lace up your sneakers, step outside and -- ah-ah-ah-choo! -- hay fever puts a damper on your spring fever.
If you've noticed more sneezing recently, you're not alone. Scientists have seen a two- to threefold increase in some common adult seasonal allergies since the 1970s; the condition affects approximately 46 percent of people in the United States today. They pinpoint "spring creep" as the culprit. No matter what Punxsutawney Phil predicts, spring arrives earlier than it did 20 years ago, extending the growing season by 10 to 14 days, according to data from the U.S. Global Change Research Program. That's great news if you want your tomato plants to grow like gangbusters but not so swell for your sinuses. "Pollen hangs around longer because warm weather does, and today it lingers much longer than it used to," explains Kim Knowlton, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council's health and environment program in New York City. The fine dust of plant microspores spreads in the wind and can land in the eyes, nose, and lungs, setting off sneezes and sniffles.
What's worse, the source of the rising temps -- elevated levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide -- acts as a fertilizer on plants, causing them to grow bigger and faster and to produce more pollen. (Ragweed alone churns out 132 percent more of the powdery stuff than it did during preindustrial times, when the world relied less on CO2-spewing fossil fuels.) Also, because of excess CO2, pollen now contains more symptom-inducing proteins, which may prompt a more severe allergic response, Knowlton explains.
But after a long, blustery winter of Michelin Man coats, hat hair, and chapped lips, you've earned the right to go out and play. So we tapped the experts to bring you the latest, smartest allergy-fighting actions. Follow them to ease your sneeze season and enjoy that fresh air at last.Get Yourself to the Greek (Yogurt)
During an allergy attack, IgE, an antibody in your blood, stimulates the release of histamine, a neurotransmitter that causes your runny nose, watery eyes, and sneezing fits. It may be possible to put a pharma-free kibosh on hay fever by downing a daily dose of probiotic yogurt, which contains a strain of "friendly" bacteria called Lactobacillus casei. Allergy sufferers who consumed a drink containing L. casei had significantly lower levels of IgE, a study in the journal Clinical and Experimental Allergy found. "Probiotics help balance the bacteria in your digestive system and may prevent the immune system from overreacting to pollen and other allergens," says study author Kamal Ivory, PhD, a senior researcher at the Institute of Food Research in the United Kingdom.Try the Spritzer
Antihistamines are a go-to allergy treatment, but startling new research in the journal Obesity shows that women taking prescription versions of the medicines, including Allegra, Clarinex, and Zyrtec, weigh 10 pounds more, on average, than non-pill poppers. "Naturally occurring histamine in your body may be involved in controlling the appetite; antihistamines may block that function and cause you to feel hungrier," says study author Joseph Ratliff, PhD, a postdoctoral associate at Yale School of Medicine.
If you've noticed weight gain while you're taking a prescription antihistamine -- or just don't want to risk it -- ask your allergist if an intranasal corticosteroid, like Veramyst or Nasonex, would be right for you. It's a medicated nasal spray that you use daily. "The steroid interferes with genes involved in your immune system's inflammatory response, which goes into overdrive when you have allergies," says Anne K. Ellis, MD, assistant professor in the departments of medicine and microbiology and immunology at Queen's University in Canada. "By reducing inflammation, you will decrease symptoms like congestion, runny nose, itchiness, and sneezing."Be Sure to Flush
If congestion is your main concern, swing by the drugstore and pick up a neti pot, a genie-lamp-shaped device that you can use to spring clean your nasal cavity. In a pitcher, mix together a pint of lukewarm water, a teaspoon of kosher salt, and a half teaspoon of baking powder; fill the neti pot with the mixture. Leaning over a sink, tilt your head to one side and pour the solution into the uppermost nostril; the liquid will drain out of the other nostril. Repeat on the opposite side. (It's not as gross as it sounds.) Despite the debate over the long-term effectiveness of neti pots, research shows that they are safe and effective for immediate relief. Nearly 60 percent of allergy sufferers who used the device daily reported significant improvement in their symptoms, a study from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison found. "We believe that in addition to removing excess mucus and allergens like pollen and dust, it may sweep out histamine," notes assistant professor and study author David Rabago, MD.Sweat It Out
Thirty minutes of aerobic activity most days of the week can help reduce the risk for heart disease in patients with allergies, says Carlos Iribarren, MD, PhD, a research scientist at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, California. This is especially important because allergy sufferers are 40 percent more likely to develop coronary heart disease than sneeze-free folks.
Exercise also naturally soothes symptoms. When you have allergies, the blood vessels in your nose swell, causing congestion. But during a workout, as your body directs blood flow to the hardworking parts that need it most, the blood vessels in your nose, which are not a top priority, constrict, easing congestion. "The effect typically occurs within five minutes of exercise and can last for several hours afterward," says Michael Benninger, MD, institute chair of the department of otolaryngology at the Cleveland Clinic.
Of course, being stuffed up can make it hard to get yourself moving. If that's the case, ask your doctor about an intranasal antihistamine, such as Astelin or Petanase -- a fast-acting, nondrowsy prescription spray you can administer 15 to 30 minutes before your workout. Also, on high-pollen days it may be wise to hold off on outdoor exercise until afternoon, because levels often spike early in the day. Track your area's pollen count at pollen.aaaai.org/nab, the website of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, and opt for the gym when it's high.Take Your Best Shot
Today's allergy injections target the specific source of your irritation, whether it's ragweed spores or Fido's fur. First your doctor will determine the guilty party through an allergy test, which may involve her placing a solution containing the potential allergen on your skin and judging your body's reaction. Then you'll be injected with gradually increased amounts of the offending agent. "Over time your immune system will build up a tolerance to the allergen," Dr. Ellis says. You may need weekly shots for four to six months to get the effect, then monthly ones for as long as five years to maintain it. The good news: All those little pricks today could equal sweet relief tomorrow. While other allergy meds address only symptoms, shots are the closest thing to a cure because they alter your body's immune response, allowing you to reduce or stop treatment altogether. Talk about a very welcome relief!
Furry friends can trigger seasonal sneeze fests. People with allergies, such as to pets and dust mites, reacted to ragweed pollen sooner and more severely than others, a study in Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology found. Scientists say that exposure to one allergen, like pet dander, makes your system more likely to react to a second irritant, like pollen.6 Ways to Clear the Indoor Air
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, May 2011.