Recent data shows that seasonal allergies—also known as allergic rhinitis or hay fever— affect as many as one in six Americans. Even if you never had allergies as a child, you could develop them as an adult, and adult-onset allergies are becoming increasingly common. If you are one of the millions of people who have seasonal allergies, you know that sneezing, congestion, a runny nose, and other bothersome symptoms are a part of your daily life. You may have even tried a number of nontraditional remedies along with medications to alleviate your symptoms.
This is why the National Institute of Health (NIH) did a deep dive into the research on nontraditional, or as they call it, complementary allergy remedies to see which actually work. As it turns out, not that many do.
What exactly are allergies?
When you have an allergy, your immune system is reacting to something that may not bother other people. Seasonal allergies are a reaction to pollen from plants. Symptoms may include sneezing, coughing, a runny or stuffy nose, and itching in the eyes, nose, mouth, and throat.
Allergies may worsen with age because you’ve been exposed to the triggers longer, but it’s also possible for you or your child to outgrow allergies, which can occur as your body develops tolerance to an allergen with ongoing exposure. Either way, the two worst seasons for allergies are spring and fall.
The most common culprit for fall allergies is ragweed, a plant that grows wild almost everywhere, but especially on the East Coast and in the Midwest. Ragweed blooms and releases pollen from August to November. In many areas of the country, ragweed pollen levels are highest in early to mid-September.
In the spring the main culprits triggering this misery are trees, grasses, and weed pollen. These yellowish powders fertilize plants and are spread by wind, insects and birds. A rainy spring can help plants – and mold – grow more quickly, causing allergy symptoms to linger for months.
The bottom line is that many people suffer from allergies, and while there are medications that treat allergies, many people seek out alternative remedies to use instead of, or along with medication.
The NIH looked at all categories of alternative therapies. They included:
- Nutritional (e.g., special diets, dietary supplements, herbs, probiotics, and microbial-based therapies).
- Psychological (e.g., meditation, hypnosis, music therapies, relaxation therapies).
- Physical (e.g., acupuncture, massage, spinal manipulation).
- Combinations such as psychological and physical (e.g., yoga, tai chi, dance therapies, some forms of art therapy) or psychological and nutritional (e.g., mindful eating).
If you’ve never heard of these activities in relation to allergies, that’s OK because an NIH review of hundreds of studies shows that only two of these work to alleviate allergy symptoms without risk.
Two Alternative Treatments that Improve Seasonal Allergy Symptoms
According to traditional Chinese medicine, allergies are caused by disharmony in the body and occur when the flow of qi (pronounced “chee”) is blocked. Traditional Chinese medicine aims to open the meridians, promote the flow of qi energy, and restore your body to health. The efficacy of acupuncture in allergic rhinitis and other allergic diseases, such as asthma or allergic eczema, appears to be due to regulation of cytokines, which are responsible for the different steps during an allergic reaction. Further studies are necessary to confirm this hypothesis; however, the effects of acupuncture have already been demonstrated in several clinical studies.
Acupuncture is generally considered safe when performed by an experienced practitioner using sterile needles. Improperly performed acupuncture can cause potentially serious side effects.
2. Saline Nasal Washes
Rinsing your sinuses with a neti pot or other device, such as a nebulizes or spray, pump, or squirt bottle, has shown to be a useful treatment of allergy symptoms. Saline nasal washes are a quick, inexpensive, and effective way to relieve nasal congestion and directly flush the mucus and allergens from your nose.
It is important to pay attention to the source of water that is used with nasal rinsing devices. According to the FDA, tap water is not filtered, treated, or processed in specific ways and is therefore not safe for use as a nasal rinse. Sterile water is safe, including distilled water and over-the-counter nasal rinsing products that contain sterile saline (salt water). Tap water contains low levels of organisms, such as bacteria and protozoa, which are safe to swallow because stomach acid kills them, but these organisms can stay alive in nasal passages and cause potentially serious infections.
When Alternative Remedies Aren’t Enough
For many people, avoiding allergens and trying home remedies is enough to ease symptoms of seasonal allergies. But if your allergy symptoms are bothersome enough to interfere with work, sleep, and daily life, it may be time to discuss your symptoms with a medical provider. Together, you can discuss the treatment options that may work for you.
Antihistamines can help relieve sneezing, itching, stuffy or runny nose, and watery eyes. Examples of oral antihistamines include cetirizine (Zyrtec Allergy), fexofenadine (Allegra Allergy) and loratadine (Claritin, Alavert).
Oral decongestants, such as pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) can provide temporary relief from nasal stuffiness. Some allergy medications combine an antihistamine with a decongestant. Examples include cetirizine-pseudoephedrine (Zyrtec-D 12 Hour), fexofenadine-pseudoephedrine (Allegra-D 12 Hour Allergy and Congestion) and loratadine-pseudoephedrine (Claritin-D). Talk to your health care provider about whether the use of a decongestant is good for treating your allergy symptoms.
Corticosteroid nasal sprays
Corticosteroid nasal sprays can improve nasal symptoms. Examples include fluticasone propionate (Flonase Allergy Relief), budesonide (Rhinocort Allergy) and triamcinolone (Nasacort Allergy 24 Hour). Long-term use of corticosteroid nasal sprays has shown negative side effects, so it is important to discuss use with your medical provider. Also, most providers will tell you to stay away from decongestant nasal sprays, as they can cause dependency.
Regular injections containing tiny amounts of a substance that causes allergies, also known as desensitization, can be helpful to reduce the immune reaction that causes allergy symptoms. This treatment is truly disease-modifying and can actually make you less allergic.
The Bottom Line:
If you have seasonal allergy symptoms, you don’t need to suffer. Two alternative remedies have been shown to be effective, acupuncture and saline nasal washes. Other remedies, including oral medication, steroid sprays and shots can help when symptoms negatively affect your daily life.