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How to stay healthy during allergy season

Mar 14, 2018
By Spencer Blackman, MD

Updated August 9, 2023.

If you find yourself suffering from sneezing, itchy eyes, and pressure headaches every spring and fall, welcome to the seasonal allergy club. Here are some common questions we get about pollen allergies — and how to survive them without losing your mind.

How do I know if I have allergies, a cold, or a sinus infection?

It can be tough to tell sometimes. Unlike allergies, a cold or respiratory infection often brings on a fever, so that’s a key indicator. If your nasal congestion clears up within one to two weeks, chances are you had a cold rather than allergies. Seasonal allergy symptoms tend to last three weeks or more, depending on the types of pollen you’re allergic to. Lastly, differentiating between allergies, cold, and sinus infection is one of those times when you actually can consider mucus color. A thin, clear discharge generally points to allergies, while an opaque, yellow/green, or thick discharge usually indicates a cold. There’s a common misconception that yellow or green mucus signals a bacterial infection, but that’s not a reliable indicator. Other allergy symptoms include throat irritation, occasional wheezing, skin rash, fatigue, and frequent sneezing.

I’ve had symptoms for three weeks without a fever, but my mucus has changed from clear to green. Should I see a doctor?

You should consult your health care provider whenever your allergy medications aren’t working, for a preventive visit before allergy season, or if you can’t tell whether allergies are causing your symptoms. Even if it turns out you don’t have a cold or sinus infection, your appointment will give you the opportunity to collaborate with your health care provider on a treatment plan for your nasal allergies.

Is it possible to prevent allergies?

You can’t prevent seasonal allergy symptoms from occurring, but you can do things to minimize the impact of the symptoms on your quality of life. Here are some steps I recommend you take before and during allergy season:

  • Start a steroid nasal spray about four to six weeks ahead of pollen season.
  • Stay indoors during peak pollen hours, such as mornings. On high-pollen days, stay indoors as much as possible.
  • Do your seasonal cleaning before pollen’s in the air. You may still have to cope with dust allergies while cleaning, but at least you won’t have to deal with dust and pollen.
  • Keep windows closed when pollen counts are high.
  • Place air filters inside your air conditioning vents to prevent pollen from getting blown into your living space.
  • Get a dehumidifier. These devices also filter the air in your home, which may help improve your indoor air quality.
  • Remove outer garments outside and shake them off before bringing them indoors. Even though you may not be able to see pollen on your clothing, it’s there.
  • Wash pollen down the drain by showering as soon as you get home. Pollen sticks to your hair and skin, so rinsing it off will help keep it out of your bed, carpet, and furniture.

What allergy medications do you recommend?

For most people, over-the-counter allergy medications are a good first-line defense. You might need to try different pills to find the one that works best for you. Use a non-drowsy allergy pill (like ioratadine/Claritin or cetirizine/Zyrtec) for daytime, and diphenhydramine (Benadryl) at night as needed. If allergy pills alone aren’t working, consider trying a steroid nasal spray, which are available over the counter. Be sure to use it according to the package directions.

Note: It takes up to a week for steroid nasal sprays to reach maximum effectiveness, whereas allergy pills work within half an hour. You can use both allergy pills and steroid nasal sprays at the same time for best effect.

Are allergy shots effective?

Allergy shots help prevent allergy symptoms. They work by introducing the allergen to the body starting with very small amounts, and then gradually increasing the dose. Over time, the individual becomes less sensitive to the allergen. You would need to see an allergy specialist for these shots. After receiving the shot, they’ll ask you to sit in the waiting room for a short period because of the very rare risk of a severe allergic reaction. For these reasons, I only recommend immunotherapy after pretty much all else has failed, or for people with severe symptoms.

Can neti pots help treat allergies?

I’m a fan of nasal saline irrigation. If you use a neti pot, be sure to use only distilled water and to clean and dry the pot thoroughly between uses. Although rare, there’s a risk of parasitic infection when using tap water in neti pots. And if you don’t dry the pot thoroughly, you’re inviting mold growth. It’s also fine to simply pick up a bottle of saline nasal irrigation at the drugstore. It’s sterile, and the bottle can be recycled. I’ve found saline irrigation works better for chronic allergies rather than seasonal, but it can’t hurt to try it.

Is there any way technology can help me manage my allergies?

Yes! Several pollen-forecasting apps are available for smartphones. Some of these apps can give a very precise pollen forecast for your location, so you can plan your activities accordingly. And if you like to exercise outdoors, it’s very helpful to have an hourly pollen forecast at hand.

I’ve tried everything, but I’m still miserable. Any suggestions?

Consider complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) solutions. I often recommend acupuncture for seasonal allergies, along with the herb stinging nettle in a tea or capsules. Keep in mind these work best as preventive options, so start well before allergy season. For more options, talk to your health care provider.

Seasonal allergies can be annoying to deal with, but you can minimize their impact through preventive measures, medication, and even immunotherapy. Don’t let pollen season get the best of you this year!

Looking for more information about allergies? Read All About Allergies.

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Spencer Blackman, MD, One Medical Provider

Spencer practices relationship-centered primary care, blending a traditional sensibility with up-to-date clinical knowledge and a strong focus on disease prevention. He enjoys getting to know his patients well, educating and empowering them to participate in health care decisions. Spencer completed his residency training at UCSF and practiced primary care, urgent care, sports medicine and adolescent medicine throughout the Bay Area before joining One Medical Group. He is certified with the American Board of Family Medicine. Spencer is a One Medical Group provider.

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The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, a national, modern primary care practice pairing 24/7 virtual care services with inviting and convenient in-person care at over 100 locations across the U.S. One Medical is on a mission to transform health care for all through a human-centered, technology-powered approach to caring for people at every stage of life.

Any general advice posted on our blog, website, or app is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace or substitute for any medical or other advice. 1Life Healthcare, Inc. and the One Medical entities make no representations or warranties and expressly disclaim any and all liability concerning any treatment, action by, or effect on any person following the general information offered or provided within or through the blog, website, or app. If you have specific concerns or a situation arises in which you require medical advice, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified medical services provider.