Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Attacking Allergies

It's springtime in DC, and many of us are suffering.  Even people who don't suffer allergies in other locations come to DC, and start noting congestion, watery eyes, etc.

And for those of us who are allergy sufferers, DC is bad.  Bad enough that we supposedly have "our own kicked-up definitions of 'very high'."

In years past, the pollen ruined my running each fall and spring.  My lungs would feel like a forest of mold was growing within them -- "clogged" was the term I used -- and it was a struggle for me to run even at easy pace some days.  I'd take an OTC anti-histamine, with only mild improvement.

However, I've spent a lot of time researching, consulting allergists, and experimenting, and have found a program that seems to work for me.  No, it's not perfect.  I'm still impaired, and definitely have tough days when the pollen is high.  My eyes still water, I still sneeze, I still feel tired, my breathing still hurts.  That hasn't changed.  But I AM able to run, and to do workouts, and even to race.  Heck, even though I don't feel 100%, I'm setting PRs (which also makes me feel really good about my running).    I'm running at 90%, rather than 50%.  And that's pretty darn good.

Here's my program.  Yes, it's a lot.  But it works.

  • Showering:  Yes, it's a good idea in general.  But even better after you've been dowsed in pollen.  I shower after every time I venture outside, and I wash my hair each time.  A lot of pollen can collect on one's hair and skin.  Removal is essential, and the less time the pollen has to affect you, the less irritated your system gets.

    Unresolved childhood trauma in a bottle. 
    On sale at CVS.  Next to the anxiety meds.
  • Neti pot: I use this after every time I go outside -- same theory as the shower.  And the salt water up the nose brings back memories of childhood trips to the beach, where I'd play in the ocean and get knocked over by a wave and trapped by the weight of the water so that I couldn't get up and I was drowning and the lifeguard couldn't see to help me....  

    Moving on.
  • Pillow cases: these get washed every other night, and I always use fresh ones the night before a workout or race.  Pollen (and cat dander) accumulates on these; best not to let your head steep in allergens for 6-8 hours a day.

  • Air filtration:  I have a  Holmes Air Purifier.  It seems to work well enough; I definitely wake up with less irritation when it's on.   Added bonus feature is that it's a white noise generator -- helpful when you live in an urban neighborhood, with your bedroom window at street level.
  • Allegra:  I've tried them all -- Benadryl, Claritin, Zyrtek, and Allegra -- and I'd list them in that order in terms of effectiveness, from least to most.  Allegra's really been the best of the OTC, and helps me some, though it's not a complete solution.  No, I don't do the "D" versions -- taking anything with pseudoephedrine is pretty much a guarantee of screwed up sleep for days.

  • Quercetin:  Fantastic stuff.  It's a natural anti-histamine (same stuff that's in apple skins, grape skins, etc).  There's no studies yet definitively establishing its benefits for human allergy sufferers, but I can vouch that in my case, it's been a game changer.  I can't rule out the placebo effect, of course, but I really started it last fall with a lot of skepticism after it was recommended to me.  I took it, forgot that I had taken it, and then noted to a friend that the pollen really wasn't that bad.  In the wake of my friend's stunned response, I remembered that I had tried the quercetin. 

    You can find this at Whole Foods. 
    Friends don't let friends use this.
    Or at least sit near them.
    I'll be the first to admit that the Whole Foods supplement aisle is a SCARY SCARY place, inhabited by believers in bach flowers and homeopathy and deodorant crystals
    and "Tom's Toothpaste."  But not all supplements are bad (see...calcium).  And, having run my use of quercetin past my allergist, my primary care doctor, and my father (a doctor with expertise in medication side effects), I'm pretty comfortable using it. 
    I use the Whole Foods store brand, with 500 mg quercetin, 350 GDU bromelain, and nothing else.
  • Singulair: Prescription medication for asthma/allergies.  I'm not sure how much use it is.  Seems to help some, but could be my imagination.  I've inadvertently skipped a dose from time to time, and not noted much difference.
  • Pro-Air inhaler:  Prescription asthma inhaler.  No, this isn't specifically for allergies, but my allergies aggravate my exercise induced asthma, and so I lump this into the list.  You need a prescription for this, and if you don't have asthma/bronchoconstriction, it won't make a difference.  Keep in mind that these also aggravate acid reflux, and also can have a stimulating effect similar to a cup of coffee.
  • A sense of humor, and self-tolerance:  Free, and surprisingly beneficial.  You can only control your allergies so much, but you can control your attitude.  Focus on maintaining the effort level that will allow you to complete your workouts successfully, and you'll be pleasantly surprised by how successful your spring is.  And on the toughest days, just rationalize that you're getting the benefits of altitude training from the comfort of your own city.


  1. Helpful tips! I know we have talked about your routine before, but it's helpful to have it down on 'paper.' Probably doing one or two of these things would help me a lot. I wonder if different allergens can bring on different symptoms. How long do you keep this up? As long as the symptoms persist?

    1. I do pretty much all of this year round -- because I get irritated by stuff like my cat and the pool chlorine as well. The "shower everytime I go outside" is only for fall and spring, though.

  2. This is awesome. I'm still trying to figure out if I have EIB or not, but I DO know I'm super allergic to tree pollen. And now that I know what's wrong--and that I won't drop dead on a run--I feel I can check my ego and come back, run slowly, and wait it out. And now I'll try some of these tricks to. So seriously, thanks for this post!

  3. A great reference post for many! I agree that Allegra is the most effective allergy medicine. I made the mistake of taking Allegra D last fall and I didn't sleep at all for two nights straight! Hopefully the allergens will be gone soon and replaced with the 100% humidity we enjoy in the summers here.

  4. This is great. This whole week I've been thinking allergies were over, since I felt great and then this morning I feel like a bus ran me over!

    I've tried zyrtec and claritin, which both leave me feeling worse then the allergies, so I've suffered. I am going to try the allegra and quercitin combo. I took singulair years ago and had some weird side effects.

    Still hoping to cheer you on Sunday! ;)