It’s that time of year. The pollen from the trees in front of my house is so thick it leaves layers on top of cars. My eyes start to water. I’m sneezing constantly, and running sounds miserable. Yes, it’s allergy season.
“[Allergies] can cause impairment equal to two cocktails or taking a sedative,” says Dr. Leo Galland, co-author with Jonathan Galland of The Allergy Solution. While the effects of allergies on athletic performance have not been extensively studied, allergies have been shown to impact breathing ability, and decrease mental function and focus.
“The number one symptom is fatigue,” says Denise Wood, owner of Advanced Allergy Solutions, a holistic allergy clinic that provides unique anti-allergy treatments. Allergy sufferers are typically physically and emotionally irritated too. “It’s kind of like being sick, but it’s all the time.”
You wouldn’t necessarily run if you were sick, so is it safe to run if you have bad allergies? And even if it is safe, how can you make running through the symptoms more pleasant? Try these tips to keep moving even as the pollen falls.
Is it safe?
Allergies can increase the risk of exercise-induced asthma, even if you generally don’t have breathing issues when the air is fine. An asthma attack can be dangerous. “It wouldn’t be safe if it’s inducing asthma,” Wood advises.
With that exception, you can also use the same general rules as deciding to exercise while sick: Don’t do it if you have a fever or bad symptoms below the neck.
Allergies can also affect your sleep. If tired, decide whether running or rest would be best for you. But if it’s just sneezing, itchy eyes and a runny nose, then there is no a reason not to run—except for the discomfort.
RELATED: Should You Run When You’re Sick?
Tips for dealing with allergies
Allergy meds: Prescription inhalers, antihistamines and decongestants can obviously help. It is ideal to take those meds an hour or two before running. Many allergy medications can also cause fatigue, so doctors typically recommend a non-drowsy version if you intend to perform physical activity.
Over-the-counter nasal sprays, like Flonase, and eye drops can help relieve symptoms. Many are more effective before you experience symptoms rather than after.
However, if you’re planning to compete, a number of common drugs, like Sudafed, include the banned substance pseudoephedrine. Check the ingredients on your medications and the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned drug list.
Natural remedies: Wood recommends natural anti-histamines available at health food stores, like Vitamin A, quercetin, and even nettles.
Dr. Galland suggests that taking 600 to 900mg of N-acetylcysteine, two to four times daily, can help prevent allergy symptoms. Lactobacillus probiotics can also improve your immune system function and lessen the symptoms of nasal allergies. He also notes that fish oils have a preventative effect against asthma. However none of these are going to relieve acute symptoms.
“Those aren’t quick fixes,” says Dr. Galland, but rather supplements that need to be taken regularly for their preventative effects.
You can also try wearing a handkerchief or mask over your face. Though it can be uncomfortable when running, it does help. Wood also advises that a nap may also stop the allergy response. Others find relief from acupuncture.
RELATED: 6 Ways Acupuncture Can Help Runners
Pick your exercise times: If you know what you’re allergic to, you can plan workouts to avoid any time of day when pollen counts are high. “But most people don’t know what they’re allergic to,” Wood says. They simply know what time of year they generally have problems. You can get an allergy skin test to find out which allergens affect you.
Online pollen trackers, like the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology’s or airnow.gov, can be useful for establishing patterns—though Wood cautions many online pollen trackers rarely give live data.
Pollen counts do tend to be highest from 8 a.m. to noon, peaking around 10 a.m., according to Dr. Galland. Allergens can also be worse when windy. Rain tends to tamp down some of the irritants, but mold can be highly problematic after rainstorms.
Shower and clean: Because it sticks to your clothes and skin, “you carry pollen in with you,” Dr. Galland says. It can be helpful to keep a clean house and launder clothes to avoid sitting in allergens. Flushing out your nasal cavities can also get rid of the irritants.
Even if you exercise indoors to avoid outdoor allergens, you may need to shower first, wash your hair, and change clothes to remove the pollen or spores brought in.
Other issues to consider
“I found running actually relieved the symptoms of hay fever,” Dr. Galland says. Ideally, he would take a cold shower, then go for a run, sometimes even late at night, to decrease allergic reactions and hormone response in the body.
Dr. Galland also notes that there is evidence that certain foods can cross-react with certain allergies. Raw apples, nuts, carrots, celery, and large-pit fruits can affect birch pollen allergies. Ragweed or grass allergies can react to melons, bananas, and citrus fruits. Try different foods to figure out if your allergies are exacerbated by a certain diet.
Sugar, including in alcohol, generally has an inflammatory effect and should be avoided a well.
Some studies have also found that air quality and auto emission pollution can make allergies worse. If that’s an issue, then Vitamin C can have a detoxifying effect and broccoli sprouts can help block the effects of auto exhaust. Plus, when deciding where to run, “choose a beach over a highway (if possible in your area),” Galland adds.
Wood also advises to avoid stress. Of course this is easier said than done, but stress, a lack of sleep, and overall poor health can make allergies worse. Extremely upsetting events can also trigger allergies that you might not have had before. “Then they tend to just get worse and worse,” says Wood, unless measures are taken.