It's finally spring just about everywhere, which means it's time for the classic guessing game, "Do I have allergies or a spring cold?"
Here's one easy way to tell: When people have a first bout with seasonal allergies, they typically experience itchy, watery eyes, sneezing and a runny nose with clear -- rather than discolored -- mucus, said Dr. Ellen Dutta, assistant medical director of allergy at Massachusetts General Hospital.
"If there’s a lot of itching or sneezing, those are the clues that it’s allergies," she said.
Allergy testing is the only way to know for sure if you're allergic, and your specialist might recommend commercial medication such as an over-the-counter antihistamines, allergy shots, or under-the-tongue immunotherapy treatments.
But what if you want to treat your allergies without medical intervention? (With your doctor's blessing, that is.) While there's no silver bullet natural remedy for allergies, there are some lifestyle changes you can undertake to help make the season bearable. Here are 4 ways to help reduce your allergy suffering -- and one thoroughly debunked "remedy" to avoid:
1. Don't rely on honey
Forget every woo-woo thing your co-worker told you about eating local honey to immunize your body against seasonal allergies. The method is completely unproven, according to Dutta.
While the idea that honey could help allergies has logical roots -- honey may have some anti-inflammatory benefits, and repeatedly exposing patients to small amounts of allergens is considered an allergy treatment -- honey for allergy relief has never been consistently duplicated in clinical studies, according to the Mayo Clinic. Worse yet, honey can cause health problems in people with bee allergies, and infant botulism if given to children younger than a year old.
Tree pollen, specifically birch and oak tree pollen, is the main culprit during early spring, closely followed by grass pollen in later spring and early summer. The middle of summer brings a brief hiatus, then grass pollen returns at the end of summer, rounded out by ragweed in the fall.
By contrast, pollens in honey tend to come from flowers more than from trees, according to Dutta. Tree pollen is lighter than flower pollen, so it stays airborne longer, while flower pollen falls to the ground, meaning allergenic tree, grass and weed pollen don’t tend to end up in the honey as often. And although the smell of flowers might irritate people who are sensitive to it, flower pollen doesn't produce an immune response in the same way that tree pollen does.
"There aren’t any real herbal remedies or holistic treatments that have been proven to help," Dutta said. "The pollens that we’re allergic to are the types of pollens that travel by wind -- tree, weed or grass pollens that blow in the air."
2. Keep your windows closed and blast the AC
If you can't stop sneezing, one of the most basic things you can do it to put a barrier between yourself and the enemy outdoors. During spring, summer or fall, Dutta and her colleagues at Mass General recommend patients avoid the pollen that’s in the air by keeping the house and car windows closed and running an air conditioner, she said.
Dr. Myngoc Nguyen, chief of allergy at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in northern California, echoed this advice: "Using an air conditioner in your car can cut the amount of pollen you breathe by as much as 30 percent," she told Health.com.
3. Try a sinus rinse
Another technique is to use a neti pot, a teapot-shaped vessel that's available over the counter and basically flushes out your sinuses with a saltwater mixture.
“The nose is like a car filter or home air filter that traps debris. Rinsing the nose with saline solution is similar to using saline eye drops to rinse out pollen,” said Dr. Steven Osborne, a medical officer in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health.
"A lot of patients use the sinus rinse on a regular basis, once or twice a day, as part of their routine," Dutta said.
Safety should be a top concern. If you decide to go the nasal irrigation route, it's important to use distilled or sterilized bottled water for the rinse, according to the Mayo Clinic. Tap water is okay to use if it's been boiled for a few minutes, then cooled to a lukewarm temperature. If neti pots aren't used and cleaned properly, tap water bacteria can cause potentially serious infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As always, you should talk to your doctor before starting any sort of health regimen.
4. Change your clothes
If you've been outside during allergy season, it's a good idea to take off your shoes and change your clothes when you move indoors, which limits your exposure to pollen and stops the spread of pollen in your home.
Pollen can ride inside on pet fur, too, so it's a good idea to keep dogs and cats as clean as possible. "These are all small things that can add up," Dutta said.
5. Wash your hair
It's not just your clothes you should wash when you come in from the great outdoors. Dutta recommends taking a quick shower to wash off any pollen that may have adhered to your person. Those trying to cut down on their weekly washings should know that this technique includes actually washing your hair -- no shower caps allowed.
"The pollen collects on your hair,"Dutta explained. "When you go to bed the pollen can collect on the pillow, and you have more exposure that way."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece stated that pollens in honey don’t come from trees. Rather, while tree pollen can end up in honey, flower pollen is more prevalent.