Allergies are in season. Here’s how to prevent allergy issues—and how seasonal triggers interact with other lung conditions.
Seasonal allergies to pollen from flowers, trees, grasses, and other plants causes many of us to sniffle and sneeze. Allergies can also lead to symptoms in your lungs, which can aggravate existing breathing conditions.
Sophia Chang, MD, MPH, internist, and Chief Clinical Informatics Officer for Clover Health, says seasonal allergies are the most common cause of nasal congestion and minor upper-respiratory issues in the spring and summer. “Self-care at home is fine for nasal congestion and teary eyes,” Dr. Chang says, noting that neti pots and over-the-counter non drowsy antihistamines are often helpful. “However, if you start having actual breathing problems—if you’re feeling short of breath or having difficulty catching your breath—it’s important to see your primary care doctor sooner rather than later.”
Signs you’re having serious breathing problems may include difficulty speaking a full sentence and getting more winded than you usually do walking up steps. For many older adults, treating seasonal allergies takes a back seat to managing more serious chronic conditions. And that can be a problem, says Kumar Dharmarajan, MD, MBA, cardiologist, geriatrician, and Chief Scientific Officer at Clover Health. “Some allergy symptoms may actually exacerbate chronic respiratory conditions common in older adults (including COPD and asthma) and shouldn’t be ignored,” explains Dr. Dharmarajan.
How to Prevent Allergy Issues
1. Shut your windows.
Keep the windows of your home closed to help stop irritants like pollen from entering and sticking around on your furniture and bedding. Use fans and air conditioners to keep your home at a comfortable temperature during warmer months.
2. Clean the air.
The CDC says portable air filters can help clean irritants from the air. A high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter, which is at least 99.97 percent effective at capturing particles 0.3 microns in size, can remove airborne particles like dust, pollen, mold, and bacteria. Just be sure to change filters regularly as directed by the brand.
3. Check the air quality.
“Most local weather reports track levels of allergens in the air,” notes Dr. Dharmarajan. “There are also several mobile apps, including The Weather Channel and My Pollen Forecast, that track pollen counts digitally.” When pollen counts are high, limit your exposure by staying inside. If you must go out, wear glasses to protect your eyes from pollen. Consider wearing a mask to avoid breathing in irritants.
4. Take extra care with yard work.
Activities like weeding, raking, and mowing stir up allergens. The American Lung Association (ALA) recommends doing yard work in the early morning or evening, when pollen counts are lower.
5. Keep it clean.
Do your laundry regularly, especially anything you’ve worn outside, suggests Dr. Dharmarajan. “Your clothes could be covered with pollen,” he says. “Avoid drying laundry outside on the line, as clothes can collect allergens.”
6. See your doctor.
If you suspect your symptoms are due to seasonal allergies, call your doctor, says Dr. Dharmarajan. “Physicians sometimes miss allergy symptoms in seniors, particularly when they’re focused on larger health issues, so be sure to speak up.” It’s also a good idea to consult your doctor before using over-the-counter medications—especially if you're already taking five or more prescriptions per day.“Antihistamines in particular can be dangerous to seniors, with common side effects including drowsiness and dizziness,” Dr. Dharmarajan explains.
How Seasonal Triggers Interact With Other Lung Conditions
Allergies and COPD
What it is: COPD stands for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It’s a long-term disease that makes it hard to breathe. COPD is also used to refer to emphysema and chronic bronchitis.
What to do: COPD can be managed with medication, oxygen therapy, and pulmonary rehabilitation. The Lung Health Institute reports that people with COPD may find their symptoms worsen during allergy season, when they are at greater risk for flare-ups.“Tree, grass, and weed pollen and mold spores can increase COPD symptoms because exposure to an allergen typically narrows the airways and increases mucus production— making it even more difficult to breathe,” the institute explains. As with asthma, developing an action plan with your doctor can help you manage symptoms.
Allergies and COVID-19
What is it: COVID-19 cases range from mild to severe, with older adults and those with underlying conditions—including lung disease—at higher risk for complications. So far, says the CDC, there’s no sign that having allergies makes you more likely to get COVID-19.
What to do: If you have symptoms and think you may have been exposed to COVID-19, call your physician. Call 911 if you have trouble breathing, have pain in your chest, have trouble staying awake, or your lips and face start to turn blue.
Allergies and Asthma
What is it: Asthma is a chronic condition in which the airways become swollen in response to an irritant, making it harder for air to move in and out of your body.
What to do: It’s important for people with asthma to know their triggers and have a plan to prevent, manage, and treat symptoms. An effective asthma treatment program helps you avoid severe attacks and trips to the emergency room. Work with your doctor to create an asthma action plan, which explains when to take medication, when to call your physician, and when to seek emergency care.
- The American Lung Association (ALA) offers support for people with chronic lung conditions, including: A Better Breathers Club for people to discuss ways to cope with lung disease and provide support
- The ALA also has a free Lung Help Line staffed with lung health professionals who can help answer questions about lung health. Call 1-800-LUNGUSA or visit lung.org/help-support.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2021 issue of Clover Living magazine.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Sophia Chang.
Published on 6/22/21
Photo credit: Getty