April 6, 2012 at 8:50 AM ET
By Aviva Patz
The reason for your sniffling is simple: Your immune system encounters a foreign substance (pollen, say), registers it as a threat (it's not), and launches a counterattack. Cue the runny nose and itchy eyes. Straightforward, right? In fact, that may be the only thing about allergies that is straightforward.
"Many people suffer quietly with allergies for decades," says William Reisacher, M.D., an assistant professor of otorhi nolaryngology at Weill Cornell Medical College. "They don't tell their doctors because of the false belief that allergies are a trivial problem with no solution." Breathe a sigh of relief: We've uncovered the truth about allergies, and the best ways to keep airborne enemies at bay.
Allergies are on the rise because we've sanitized our lives
But Purell isn't entirely to blame. One leading theory is that the uptick in allergies began with our shift away from farm life and has accelerated because of our obsession with antibiotics and cleanliness, says Estelle Levetin, Ph.D., head of biological science at the University of Tulsa. As a result, we're exposed to fewer infectious agents than ever, with an unexpected side effect. In the absence of its usual targets, your immune system may become overly sensitive and attack harmless particles, says Levetin.
Your move: There's no need to play FarmVille in your backyard. But the next time your doctor prescribes an antibiotic, ask if it's absolutely necessary. When your immune system is forced to focus on invaders that matter, it may eventually start to ignore allergens, say researchers in France. Another strategy: Eat more fermented foods, such as sauerkraut and kefir. They're full of good bacteria that may boost your immune system and, say scientists in Pakistan, further help prevent it from reacting to allergens. (To find even more healthy fare, check out these 40 Foods with Superpowers.)
Special pillowcases and mattress covers will banish dust mites from your bedroom
You won't win this pillow fight. Simply covering your bedding with miteproof covers isn't enough to reduce your symptoms, a 2011 Cochrane review concluded. "Covers will work as part of a plan that includes other dust-mite control measures," says Thomas Platts-Mills, M.D., Ph.D., director of the University of Virginia's asthma and allergic disease center.
Your move: The first step in your mite-control mission: the right pillow and mattress covers. Skip the cheapie versions, their weave isn't tight enough to block the little buggers, says Dr. Platts-Mills. Instead, invest in Mission: Allergy Premium Microfiber Allergen-Proof Shams and Mattress Encasings ($28 to $170, missionallergy.com). Also, regularly wash your sheets and pillowcases in hot water and clean your floors with a HEPA vacuum, such as the Hoover WindTunnel Self-Propelled Bagless Upright ($200, hoover.com). In a Rutgers study, HEPA filtration reduced dust-mite allergens by 81 percent. The key: After vacuuming, the scientists waited 2 hours to let any agitated particles settle, and then they vacuumed again. And if you're looking for ways to log more sleep, read up on these 7 Ways to Sleep Better.
You may have allergies and not even realize it
You've pegged your runny nose as a cold symptom, but could it be allergies? "Many people misdiagnose allergies as a cold or the flu, so they never receive appropriate care," says Stanley Naides, M.D., medical director for immunology at Quest Diagnostics. This could prime your body for more misery: Untreated allergies can predispose you to sinusitis (a sinus infection due to fluid buildup), middle ear infections (inflammation/fluid buildup in your ear), or even asthma.
Your move: Take this test from the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology: (1) How did your symptoms start? Cold symptoms evolve, but allergy symptoms often strike all at once. (2) How long have you been miserable? Colds typically clear up within a week or two, whereas allergies may drag on. (3) Achy and feverish? Probably a cold or the flu. (4) Itchy eyes? Allergies, most likely. (5) Sore throat or coughing? Generally a cold. Bottom line: Don't let symptoms linger. After 2 weeks of suffering, visit your doctor, who can spot subtle signs of allergies, such as pale nasal mucous membranes, says Jeffrey Demain, M.D., director of the Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology Center of Alaska. For more ways to decode your condition, check out The Men's Health Symptom Solver.
Hypoallergenic pets won't stir up your symptoms
Don't expect a hypoallergenic pet to sneezeproof your pad. In a recent Henry Ford Health System study, allergen levels in homes with "hypoallergenic" dogs were found to be no lower than in homes with other breeds. The reason: The particles sloughed off the dog's tongue and saliva, not its fur, are what trigger your reaction, says study author Christine Cole Johnson, Ph.D. Plus, pets are often covered in other allergens, such as pollen, dust, and mold.
Your move: The Obamas were smart to adopt Bo, but not because of his so-called allergy-free coat. A dog can be an allergic person's best choice because cat dander is "stickier" and thus tougher to eliminate, says Dr. Reisacher. Shampoo your pooch regularly, and blow-dry its fur on low heat to fight "wet dog" smell, which is caused by mold. Finally, use bleach or a color-safe alternative to destroy any dander clinging to your clothes.
Nasal sprays are a safe steroid treatment
You may associate steroids with meat-heads, but what they use are anabolic steroids, which mimic male hormones. The corticosteroids in nasal sprays, on the other hand, are inflammation-fighting hormones. "They have fewer side effects than antihistamines because they go directly into your nasal tissue instead of throughout your body," says Timothy Mainardi, M.D., an allergist at Columbia University. Studies also show that corticosteroid sprays reduce nasal blockage and discharge more effectively than antihistamines do.
Your move: Start spraying a couple of weeks before your allergy season typically begins, suggests Dr. Mainardi. Red, itchy eyes? Opt for Veramyst, a new corticosteroid spray that controls nasal and eye symptoms. Or pair Nasonex or Flonase with a second-generation antihistamine, such as Claritin or Zyrtec. Click here for more ways to choose the best allergy medications.
Skin testing is a waste of time, you'll react to everything
If your test results say "allergic to the world," find a new allergist. Skin reactions need to be at least 3 millimeters across to indicate an allergy that can cause symptoms, says Dr. Demain. Another key to avoiding false positives: Share your medical history before testing. If you now eat eggs without problems despite a childhood egg allergy, your allergist can skip that test.
Your move: This is one exam you don't want to cheat on. Avoid antihistamines 3 days prior, since they may dampen your allergic response and skew your results, say Mayo Clinic scientists. And at your appointment, provide the full rundown: timing of your symptoms, family history, suspected triggers, and previously diagnosed allergies. Your allergist will then decide which allergens to test for. To find out more procedures that are worth your while, check out these 5 Health Tests That Can Save Your Life.