Suffering With Allergies? Try Tailoring Treatment to Your Symptoms

This may be an especially bad allergy season, but with some planning, you can find relief.

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Spring is here—and along with it come the sneezing and stuffy noses characteristic of allergy season. Some allergists say the 2010 allergy season may be worse than in recent years because of the heavy late-winter snowstorms that hit parts of the country. That February precipitation served as a "turbocharge" for early tree pollen, which, combined with grass pollen, means allergy sufferers may be especially miserable this year, says Clifford Bassett, chair of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology's Public Education Committee. 

You can calm your allergy symptoms if you choose the right products. But despite the wide array of options available, about 60 percent of people with allergies say they have a hard time getting relief during the spring season, according to a new survey by Consumer Reports. About 18 percent of those surveyed feel so lousy from allergies that they've missed work. Of those who saw a doctor for treatment of allergies, 59 percent reported improvement in their symptoms. For one thing, an allergist can perform testing to determine what you're sensitive to, says Robert Fisher, the medical director at a Wisconsin-based practice called Allergy Research & Care and an AAAAI fellow. For example, "if it's just grasses and trees and ragweed, [you'll know] it's good to close your windows and run the A/C and use a HEPA filter." If you're allergic to mold, you should realize it's a bad idea to open your windows when it's cool and damp—conditions that promote mold growth outdoors. A doctor also can offer allergy shots or medicines available only by prescription. 

[Learn 6 Ways to Prevent or Treat Seasonal Allergy Symptoms.]

But overall, the key to dealing with allergy symptoms is to tailor treatment to your symptoms. So if you... 

...have itchy, watery eyes, consider allergy eyedrops. If this is your only symptom, "you may not need to take systemic medication" such as Claritin or Zyrtec, Fisher says. Instead, you may be able to use antihistamine prescription eyedrops, such as Patanol, or over-the-counter eyedrops, such as Zaditor (formerly a prescription medication). 

...are sneezing or have a stuffy or runny nose, there are a few options. Nasal steroids, such as Flonase, can help calm inflammation in the nose, relieving stuffiness. Nasal antihistamines, such as Astelin and Asterpro, can help relieve runny noses and sneezing. If you don't want to take a daily nasal spray, you can probably get by using nasal antihistamines, which provide relief within minutes, when you experience symptoms. But nasal steroids should be taken daily in order to experience the medicine's full effect. Avoid using decongestant allergy sprays, such as Afrin, for longer than three days, doctors warn, because overuse can result in a rebound effect, caused by narrowing and constriction of the blood vessels in the nose. 

Saltwater nasal rinses are a nondrug option that "can help with congestion and runny nose and sneezing," says Ujwala Kaza, a New York City-based allergist and a member of American of the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. A 2007 study found that nasal irrigation is more effective than using saline nasal sprays. 

[Stuffy nose or sinus problems? Here is a fix.] 

...have symptoms all over, try nonsedating oral antihistamines, such as OTC Claritin or Zyrtec, or prescription options like Allegra, Clarinex, or Xyzal, which can help relieve allergy symptoms throughout the body without making you sleepy. And the mainstay allergy medication Benadryl, known to cause drowsiness, still serves its purpose. "It's what we use for an allergic reaction for allergies or hives because it has a quicker onset," Kaza says. 

[Read Got Allergies or Asthma? Try Taking Photos.] 

A final tip for those with allergies: As hard as it may be to do, avoiding your allergic triggers is key. "The best thing to do is on nicer days, stay indoors if you can and try to keep windows closed," Kaza says. If you must go outside for long periods of time, take your allergy medicine before heading outdoors and avoid high-pollen areas, especially places with a lot of trees, Kaza advises.