Surviving Summer Allergies

While we look forward to summer all year long, for many families it's when allergies are at their worst. Those gentle rains and the glowing sun bring grass, trees and ragweed into bloom, while warm winds pick up their pollen and spread it all around. Suffering from watery eyes, runny nose? Read on to find relief through over-the-counter, prescription and naturopathic solutions

Surviving Summer AllergiesOur Experts

  • Dr. Susan Waserman, an allergist and clinical immunologist at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ont.
  • Julie Zepp Rutledge, a doctor of naturopathic medicine at the Regina Rehab and Family Medical Clinic, Regina
  • Dr. Charlotte Miller, a pediatric allergist with the Toronto Allergy Group and The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto


Itchy, watery eyes

For some, oral antihistamines or a nasal spray will take care of itchy, watery eyes, but if your symptoms are quite severe, you should probably look into some eye drops. Products sold off the shelf at your local drug store, such as Claritin and Visine, often contain antihistamines and/or decongestants. For something stronger, see your doctor for prescription-strength drops such as Patanol and Alrex, which may contain antihistamines, mast-cell stabilizers, corticosteroids and other agents, which fight the histamine and reduce inflammation — ask your physician (or pediatrician) for a fuller explanation on how it all works.

multiple symptoms

Generally taken orally, over-the-counter antihistamines (some by prescription) work just as the name suggests, by blocking histamine — which is one of the culprits behind all those awful symptoms — from attaching to your body’s cells. Doctors generally recommend long-acting, non-drowsy, second-generation antihistamines such as Reactine, Claritin, Aerius and Allegra — first-generation drugs like Dimetapp and Benadryl cross the blood-brain barrier and can thereby lead to drowsiness. For younger kids, seek out the children’s dosage, which is usually in syrup form. If necessary, a stronger antihistamine is available by prescription, a form of Reactine that is two to four times more potent than its OTC version.

tickly throat

Short-circuit the reflexes that cause sneezing and coughing by terminating the tickle, which is caused by mucus that seeps into the back of the throat — clean it out with
a salt-water gargle. Various natural substances can also help relieve coughing and sneezing: hyssop, mullein and thyme (preferably in tincture form) can help eliminate mucus and relax the airways, and beefing up your child’s intake of essential fatty acids (such as flax oil) can help reduce inflammation in the lungs.


Many herbs available at your local health food store can help ease the wheeze that often accompanies seasonal allergies. Rosemary, honey and witch hazel can help tighten membranes and prevent the release of mucus, fenugreek seed can flush out mucus, and licorice root and marshmallow (which sounds yummy enough, but is not the kind you roast on a camping trip) can help soothe and heal irritated airways. Look for syrups that combine these ingredients.

stuffy nose

Generally the most effective solution for nasal congestion, prescription nasal steroid sprays are sprayed directly into the nose, and work by blocking the inflammation triggered by an allergic reaction. They also, over time, cut down on the number of mast cells in the nose and eyes — which are central in allergy processes — and constrict blood vessels in these areas, which helps relieve congestion. Unlike a simple OTC nasal spray that you might use for a cold, these sprays (including Flonase, Rhinocort and Nasonex) must be used daily, and you should start spraying a week or two before your symptoms usually begin. For a more natural solution, you may want to try a nasal spray containing grapefruit seed extract, which is available without a prescription. Or buy a neti pot (which looks a bit like Aladdin’s lamp), fill it with two to three ounces of warm water and half a teaspoon each of baking soda and salt and use it to rinse out the nasal passages; if you’re using it for your child, use a nasal syringe, which you can get at any pharmacy or drug store.

stubborn symptoms

While having a needle stuck in your arm (or your child’s arm) every month over a span of three to five years may not sound so great, allergy shots (known as immunotherapy) may be the best answer for those whose allergies don’t respond to other treatments (or who are sick of taking meds). Immunotherapy works by gradually exposing your system to more and more of the stuff that’s causing your allergies, eventually desensitizing your body to them — once you’ve built up a tolerance to the allergens, you’ll stop reacting to them. Allergy shots can be given (by a physician, of course) to kids as young as five or six.

how to avoid symptoms

Given that pollen is the root of the problem, do your best to keep it at bay. Avoid drying clothing and bedding outside, and take a bath or shower after spending the day outside, as pollen that gets in your hair will end up in your nose or eyes all through the night. Keep pollen out of your indoor refuge by closing windows and turning on the A/C — making sure that your central air conditioner has a well-functioning filter — and use a freestanding high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) purifier to suck pollen out of the air.

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