Sure, the warm days of spring and summer may bring fewer colds and viral infections, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be sniffling, sneezing, or blowing your nose any less. As many as 60 million people in the U.S. experience seasonal allergies (a.k.a. seasonal allergic rhinitis or hay fever) each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Typically, seasonal allergy symptoms — runny nose, congestion, sneezing, coughing, watery eyes, under-eye swelling, sinus headaches, and itchy eyes, ears, and throat — hit with the first buds of spring, but they can last through summer and into fall, thanks to the progressive release of pollen from trees, grasses, and ragweed, as well as circulating mold spores.
“When levels of allergens in the environment reach a certain threshold — as often happens this time of year — and you breathe in those particles, they stick to your airways like microscopic burrs,” says Dr. Bill Rawls, Medical Director of Vital Plan. “That irritates tissues and triggers your immune system to launch a counter-attack.” In this attack, your cells release histamine and other chemicals into the bloodstream that act on various parts of the body, triggering the production of extra mucus and fluids, an itchy nose and throat, and other unpleasant symptoms.
The good news: While it’s true that anywhere from 33 to 91 percent of people inherit a sensitivity to excess pollen — genetically priming you for seasonal allergies — there are science-backed ways to lessen the severity of your symptoms or even prevent them from manifesting altogether.
Below, we will break down:
- Surprising things that can make seasonal allergies worse
- Natural ways to reduce seasonal allergy symptoms
- Why OTC antihistamines are still a valuable tool
Factors That Exacerbate Seasonal Allergies
Before diving into specific natural remedies, it’s important to understand that your overall health status can either quell or fuel the seasonal allergy fire. “I’ve noticed that people with really bad seasonal allergies tend to have poorer health habits,” says Dr. Rawls.
Things like unmanaged stress, inadequate sleep, eating a low-quality diet, being sedentary, and not addressing underlying health conditions can drive oxidative stress and inflammation, stress your body’s cells, and put a major burden on the immune system. “And if you’re driving your immune system too hard,” says Dr. Rawls, “it tends to react and be overly sensitive.” So, for instance, instead of that birch pollen causing a slight runny nose, you may end up wheezing, sneezing, and feeling downright miserable.
As a broad, long-term strategy for allergy relief, you want to invest in your health as much as possible by eating good food, minimizing your exposure to toxins, exercising, getting plenty of rest, practicing stress-reduction techniques, such as deep breathing, meditation, and yoga, and loading up on healthy phytochemicals from herbs and vegetables. These basic habits lay the foundation for a well-functioning immune system.
8 Natural Ways to Curb Seasonal Allergies
In addition to prioritizing healthy habits, specific tools, remedies, and lifestyle tweaks can target allergies. Together, the suggestions below offer a multi-pronged approach against allergies by reducing your exposure to allergens, soothing symptoms, and supporting bodily processes that, in turn, help your immune system.
1. Check Your Local Pollen Forecast.
If possible, stay indoors when pollen counts are at their highest — typically in the mornings and when it’s windy. You can also check the “allergy forecast” on weather.com or pollen.com to view current tree pollen, grass pollen, and ragweed pollen levels in your area.
If you can’t avoid being outside at high-pollen times, consider wearing a face mask to reduce your exposure. A recent study of people with pollen allergies found that those who wore face masks (e.g., surgical masks, KN95 masks, N95 masks) during the Covid-19 pandemic experienced a significant decline in seasonal allergy symptoms, particularly nasal discharge, nasal itching, sneezing, itchy eyes, and watery eyes.
2. Keep Your Home Allergen-Free.
On high-pollen days, close your windows to keep allergens out. Running an air conditioner — even on the fan setting — is better, as it contains a filter that helps catch pollen and other irritant particles. Just make sure you maintain your HVAC system and change the filters in window AC units regularly, or else particles can build up and blow back into your home.
In addition to that, keeping the inside of your home dust-free and clutter-free and washing your sheets at least once a week will be a big benefit, says Dr. Rawls. Dust surfaces with a damp cloth to prevent pollen-laden dust particles from becoming airborne, and consider using a vacuum and an air purifier with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter that traps pollen, dust, pet dander, and smoke particles. Finally, on the days you spend a significant amount of time outdoors, change out of your clothing as soon as you get home.
3. Diffuse This Combo of Essential Oils.
Not only do lavender and peppermint essential oils (EOs) smell great together, but they’re a powerful pair for supporting your body against seasonal allergies. Breathing in the aroma of lavender essential oil can help ease stress and anxiety and lift mood, which is important for curbing excess cortisol production and ensuring proper immune function. Plus, one animal study found that inhalation of lavender essential oil reduced allergic airway inflammation and the enlargement of mucous cells. Meanwhile, peppermint essential oil has traditionally been used to clear congestion, and animal research suggests it may have an antispasmodic effect on the smooth muscle of the trachea, which could ease an allergy-induced cough.
Reap the aromatherapy benefits by adding a few drops of lavender and peppermint essential oil to a diffuser. For more potent decongestion perks, add a few drops of these EOs to a bowl or sink full of hot water and breathe in the steam. Bonus: It will feel like you’re at the spa!
4. Stress Less to Support Your Immune System.
Stress can throw your immune system out of whack, making almost any ailment worse, says Dr. Rawls, and seasonal allergies are no exception. In one study, people who reported higher stress over two weeks also reported more allergy flares. In another study, high-stress tasks (e.g., giving a speech) exacerbated or prolonged allergy symptoms significantly more than low-stress tasks (e.g., reading quietly).
Anything that helps you calm down or brings you joy can help tamp down your body’s stress response. Here’s are a few ways to get started:
- Practice deep breathing, meditation, or yoga.
- Get any form of regular exercise, even walking.
- Aim for eight hours of sleep every single night.
- Spend time with people you enjoy, or even pets.
- Scale back on caffeine, which can elevate stress hormone levels.
- Consider taking an adaptogenic herb such as ashwagandha or rhodiola, which can help restore homeostasis, or balance, in the body.
5. Clear Your Airways with Aerobic Exercise.
Getting regular exercise may have you breathing easier if you’re an allergy sufferer. In one small study, running on a treadmill for 30 minutes at a moderate intensity significantly relieved allergy symptoms, such as sneezing and congestion — most likely by regulating inflammatory and anti-inflammatory proteins in the body called cytokines. Exercise is also known to help open up nasal airways, which may alleviate congestion.
Additionally, exercise improves the movement of blood throughout the body. “This delivers a ready supply of nutrients and oxygen to cells and clears away waste,” says Dr. Rawls. “If you’re not doing that, your cellular health is compromised — and if your cells are compromised or stressed, they’re a lot more sensitive to everything, including allergens.”
Last but not least, exercise releases feel-good chemicals called endorphins, which calm the immune system and normalize immune functions, explains Dr. Rawls.
6. Use a Soothing Nasal Mist or Neti Pot.
Saline nasal washes (using a squeeze bottle or a kettle-like device called a neti pot) can help flush pollen, dust, and other irritating particles from your nasal passages and remove excess mucus. In a research review, saline nasal irrigation improved allergy symptoms and quality of life by more than 27 percent. It also cleared nasal passages 31 percent faster and reduced the use of antihistamine medication by 62 percent.
If you’re going to use a neti pot (here’s a quick tutorial), be sure to use distilled water only and follow appropriate precautions when making your saline or saltwater solution to avoid potentially serious infections as a result of contaminated tap water. Also, “you want to be careful not to rinse so often that you’re just rinsing away the protective mucous layers,” warns Dr. Rawls.
A more soothing, less drying alternative? You can find nasal washes and convenient nasal sprays featuring both saline and xylitol (yes, the calorie-free sweetener). When used in the nose, xylitol has been shown to modulate the immune system, reduce sinus inflammation, and improve mucous membrane function. It also has antimicrobial properties, so you can alleviate allergy symptoms and curb your risk for respiratory tract infections all at once.
7. Try Acupuncture.
It might seem strange that an ancient practice utilizing ultrafine needles to stimulate different points on the body could bring you relief from your runny nose and sneezing, but it’s true. In one study, people with these allergy symptoms who received eight weeks of acupuncture used significantly less antihistamine medication — 38 percent actually required none and reported improved symptoms and quality of life compared to control groups.
If you’re worried about the price of acupuncture appointments — especially since you’ll need to commit to regular sessions to see results — ask your local practitioner if they offer community acupuncture. These are group sessions in which multiple patients are treated in the same room, and they’re typically very affordable.
8. Consider These Herbs and Supplements.
Several natural plant compounds and supplements can help lessen the blow of seasonal allergies by stabilizing cells, normalizing immune system functions, acting as antihistamines, assisting in detoxification, and more. Here are 11 worth considering:
- Quercetin: A common antioxidant compound found in onions, apples, broccoli, kale, blueberries, and other foods, quercetin is known for its natural ability to calm the body’s allergic response by inhibiting the release of histamine, says Dr. Rawls. Studies have found that it hampers signs of seasonal allergies compared to control groups.
- Glutathione: An antioxidant, glutathione resides within your body’s cells and is essential for protecting mitochondria from free-radical damage during energy generation. “It’s also really important for supporting detoxification in the body — so it’s one of those things you need to neutralize allergens and toxins and get them out,” says Dr. Rawls.
- N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC): NAC is not only a precursor to glutathione but also has some unique respiratory benefits. “It helps break down mucus, and it builds up in the lungs where it exhibits potent antioxidant properties,” says Dr. Rawls.
- Bromelain: “A protein-digesting enzyme, bromelain is found in pineapple plants, and it helps break down mucus,” Dr. Rawls says. Research suggests it helps open airways and support respiratory health, too
- Medicinal mushrooms: “Reishi and cordyceps are really nice for helping tone down allergic reactions,” says Dr. Rawls. These two formidable fungi exhibit anti-allergy effects, potentially due to anti-inflammatory and immune-modulating properties.
- Adaptogens: In addition to regulating your body’s response to stress, adaptogenic herbs such as rhodiola and ashwagandha can help “cool down the immune system,” says Dr. Rawls, potentially making you less reactive to environmental allergens.
- Turmeric: A vibrant spice, turmeric supports optimal cellular and immune system functions with its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. In one study, consuming curcumin (the main component in turmeric) helped clear nasal airflow and alleviated sneezing, runny nose, and congestion after two months compared to a placebo.
- Krill or fish oil supplements: High in omega-3 fatty acids, these supplements help balance most people’s overabundance of omega-6 fatty acids, which moderates immune response and potentially makes you less sensitive to allergens, says Dr. Rawls. One study found that omega-3s help promote healthy airway function. While both krill and fish oil contain omega-3s, krill may be a more sustainable source.
- Probiotics: Widely thought to support healthy immune system function, the good-for-you gut bacteria may help promote normal nasal function and better quality of life in people with seasonal allergies, according to a meta-analysis of research.
- Beta-glucan: These natural sugars found in the cell walls of oats, barley, and mushrooms support healthy immune function. When ragweed sufferers took beta-glucan supplements for four weeks, they reported fewer and less severe allergy symptoms compared to a placebo group. They also slept better and felt more energized.
- Butterbur: These large, leafy green plants that look like earthbound lily pads have been used in traditional Korean, Japanese, and Chinese medicine to manage allergies. Now, research is backing up its use, including studies identifying beneficial compounds in butterbur with anti-allergic and anti-inflammatory effects.
If you’re miserable, don’t be afraid to take an antihistamine.
You’re not going to get any awards for toughing out your allergies medication-free. While the approaches above are great for addressing seasonal allergies at the root, they’re not foolproof and often not immediate. So, on the days when you can’t function, grab that antihistamine.
“The non-drowsy antihistamine class of drugs, including medications like Claritin and Zyrtec, are some of the better-tolerated, lower-side-effect drugs on the market,” says Dr. Rawls. “They don’t have many negative effects on the body, and the biggest drawback is that you can develop a tolerance to them. So if you take them too often, they won’t do much for you.” But as long as you’re not overdoing it, they can be a valuable part of your allergy relief plan.
You may not be able to control whether or not you experience seasonal allergies (thanks, genetics!), but there is so much you can do to influence how severely your symptoms manifest. By clearing out pollen and dust from your home with a HEPA vacuum or air purifier, supporting your immune system with good lifestyle habits and strategic supplements, and even diffusing the right essential oils, you’re laying the groundwork for your least miserable allergy season yet!
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