Growing up, I always waited for the big maple tree in front of our house to start hosting its annual beauty pageant at the beginning of April. Those teeny little yellow flowers were a sure sign that winter had breathed its last frigid gasp (yay!) and that spring was finally, finally here. For almost two weeks the tree would be covered in yellow blossoms and, when their time was up, they fell to the ground, covering the sidewalk in a stunning floral carpet. Yup, that was my favorite time of year.
And then I got married. And had children. And suddenly discovered that those same blooms that I loved wrought havoc on my allergic family members, turning their eyes red and puffy and making them sneeze through a good six weeks of what I had always considered the most beautiful time of the year.
There was the day my oldest came home at age four from playgroup with itchy red eyes. Having suffered similarly himself, my husband pulled out the Benadryl. And there was the afternoon that the school nurse asked me to bring Benadryl for my six-year-old son, nearly prompting his teacher to have heart failure because they were about to administer standardized tests and she was afraid that the medicine would make him drowsy and mess up his test scores and, consequently, the class average. (Yes, I promise you that really happened.)
But as the number of allergy sufferers continues to rise, both due to global warming, as reported by CNBC, and possibly because of increased use of hand sanitizer gels, according to Johns Hopkins University, seasonal allergies have become a big business, and navigating your way through the allergy mine field, where trees and flowers suddenly turn into vicious predators, can be quite an experience. When I was a kid and my brother would start sneezing as Pesach rolled around, the choices were colorful but limited – bright blue Allerest, yellow Chlor Trimeton, both antihistamines, and the very cool-looking Dristan, a decongestant tablet that sandwiched a white and yellow layer together. All of which lasted just four hours – and becoming drowsy was pretty much part of the deal.
Thankfully, things have evolved since then and our pediatrician was able to suggest medications which provide at least some measure of relief. We had a full gamut of prescription antihistamines, and my kids got to be real champs at putting in their own eye drops. Best of all, my insurance covered every penny of their prescriptions.
Of course, nothing ever stays the same in the world of pharmaceuticals and one by one the prescription drugs became available over the counter, leaving me doing battle annually with the insurance company, explaining that while I knew they preferred that my kids use Zyrtec or Claritin, neither was effective. The insurance company always said no, I always appealed its decision, and it always eventually agreed to cover our beloved Allegra and Singulair combo.
It helps to understand the difference between all of the choices. According to the American College of Allergies, Asthma and Immunology, antihistamines block histamine, a chemical released by the body in response to the seasonal pollen it deems to be a threat. Available in pills, liquids, nasal sprays and eye drops, the latest iterations, such as Allegra and Xyzal, are once-a-day pills and, in addition to being non-drowsy, have fewer side effects than their predecessors. Both are now available as over-the-counter medicines, although generic Xyzal has yet to hit store shelves.
Instead of targeting histamines, decongestants like Sudafed address the problem of swollen nasal tissue, which can also be a problem for allergy sufferers. Decongestant nasal sprays are actually very effective, but, because they can cause rebound swelling, they shouldn’t be used for more than a few days in a row unless directed to do so by a doctor. Both saline sprays, which can clear out the nasal passages, and antihistamine sprays can provide relief and be safely used for longer periods of time.
Last year, my son began taking his allergy medicine in March, a full month before anything started to bloom, and he experienced a relatively mild season. My daughter, on the other hand, waited until she started sniffling to take the medication, and let’s just say that from an allergy perspective spring wasn’t exactly so much fun for her.
I have also learned to stock up. As the two best medications for our family, Allegra and Xyzal, are now available over the counter, once the pollen levels start to go up, store shelves empty out rather quickly and you don’t want to get caught shorthanded.
If you are open to taking generics, there are serious savings to be realized. Walmart and Target both have their own brands of many popular allergy medications. Costco members can realize further savings, many of which can be ordered online with free shipping – as of this writing a 90-day supply of Allegra is $34.79 at Costco while a 180-day supply of the generic equivalent sells for $33.99. Similarly, a 105-day supply of Allegra is available for $38.89 while the generic prices out at $10.99 for a 100-day supply, with additional discounts available on several allergy medicines at Costco through March 4. Also, if you don’t have a problem buying medicines in higher-quality dollar stores, be sure to check out their inventory, with plenty of sniffle-busters in stock for just a buck each.
In addition to seeking out pharmaceutical solutions to seasonal sniffling, there are lots of other things that should be on your to-do list when it comes to surviving the pollen onslaught. First and foremost, it is helpful to know what you are allergic to so that you can check the pollen counts daily and try to limit your outdoor activity on days that are going to be particularly bad. If you can’t afford to waste six weeks of prime gardening season, wear a pollen mask while you work and try to avoid being outside in the early morning hours when pollen counts peak and on dry, windy days. Be sure to wash your clothing and shower when you come in from the outdoors and, if you typically hang your laundry outside to dry, invest in an indoor drying rack during allergy season since the last thing you want to do is to have your clothing sitting outside for hours, gathering even more pollen. Keep your windows closed and your air conditioning on (I know, such a waste of gorgeous spring weather) to minimize indoor pollen and change your air filters often.
Allergy shots, which use immunotherapy to desensitize patients to allergens have proven to be very effective but they require a major commitment of time, involving weekly visits over a period of several years. I confess to not knowing much about alternative non-medical treatments for allergies, including acupuncture, but there is plenty of information online for those who choose to go that route. Finally, there are people who swear by the neti pot – a little pitcher that you fill with a sterile saline solution to irrigate and clean your nasal passages – but they are just a little too disturbing for me to contemplate.
With the calendar flipping to March, crocuses getting ready to push their way through into your garden and Pesach just weeks away, now is the time to start thinking about spring allergies. So pick up whatever supplies you need, stock up on extra soft tissues and hang in there – summer is just weeks away!