Spring is officially here, and with it can come sneezing, coughing, a runny nose, and itchy eyes. You probably want to enjoy the warmer temperatures and stop to smell the flowers, but maybe all the pollen makes you so congested you can’t catch a whiff of anything.

UVA Today talked to Dawn Bourne, a family nurse practitioner, assistant professor of nursing, and a triple Hoo, to find out how to make it through spring allergies.

Q. What plants tend to make people’s allergies flare up?

A. People are allergic to different types of allergens. In Virginia, our allergen patterns, or pollen counts, vary based on season and what is blooming at any given time. Tree and grass pollens are common allergens, but there are also household allergens like dust mites, pets and cockroaches.

Q. Are there plants and herbs that help with allergies?

A. Research data on complementary and alternative therapies for allergies is limited. There are some herbal therapies that have shown modest benefits, but not enough to recommend unless there are no other suitable options. There are many more therapies that have simply not been studied well, such as local honey. I would recommend those interested in these therapies become familiar with the side effects and understand these products are not monitored for safety by drug regulatory bodies. Those who are pregnant and nursing should discuss with their provider first.

Q. Do people’s allergies change over time? Why?

A. Some people can experience increasing sensitivity to allergens over time. This probably results from a lowering of the threshold for a clinical response to the allergen. If the person is continually exposed to the allergen, they can develop persistent nasal inflammation that causes their symptoms to occur even with exposure to lower doses of the allergen and to non-specific irritants.

Q. How long does allergy season last?

A. It seems in Virginia, allergy season is almost year-round now thanks to climate change. The spring and fall seem to be the worst for many people, but it depends on your personal allergen triggers. In spring, we peak with tree and grass pollen. In fall, the weeds and grasses have their moment.

Q. Besides taking an allergy pill, how can people control their symptoms?

A. Other than non-sedating antihistamines, the most evidence-based treatment recommendation is using intranasal steroid sprays (fluticasone for example). Saline nasal irrigation is also supported by research to help irrigate the allergens out of the nose and sinuses. 

You can also avoid allergens by staying indoors and keeping windows closed. If you do go outdoors, wash your skin and hair when you come indoors to physically remove pollen. 

In the case of dust mite allergies, there are mattress and pillow covers that can be very helpful. Keeping pets out of the bedroom and off the bed is helpful if you are unfortunately allergic to them!

HEPA filters can also be helpful to reduce pollen, pet dander, dust mites and tobacco smoke in indoor spaces.

Q. Is there a certain time of day to avoid being outside, if possible?

A. Dry, windy days are the worst because more pollen is airborne. Rain helps clear the pollen from the air, so it’s possible that after a good rain may be best. There is also some evidence pollen counts could be lower in early morning.

Q. How can you tell if you’re suffering from allergies or something else?

A. Viral colds and sinusitis can have a few symptoms in common with allergies. Typically, allergies do not result in fevers or body aches. Viral colds clear up within seven days, whereas allergies last as long as you are exposed to the allergen. If you have questions about your symptoms, you should be seen by your health care provider.

Many people with allergies can be managed well by their primary care provider, but may need referral to an allergist for allergy testing, which can be very useful to identify exactly what triggers your allergies so you can avoid them. Allergists can also use immunotherapy, or allergy shots, if needed to control symptoms.