Stop Your Sniffling: Allergy Advice

Don't let itchy eyes and a sneeze-machine nose ruin your hike. Here's our guide to keeping allergies at bay.
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Don't let itchy eyes and a sneeze-machine nose ruin your hike. Here's our guide to keeping allergies at bay.

Donna Griffiths made allergy history when she was 12 years old. Starting in 1981, the British girl sneezed every few minutes for 977 consecutive days. Doctors estimate Griffiths ah-chooed 1 million times the first year; she eventually slowed to a sneeze every 5 minutes.

Fortunately for most of us, battling allergies is a mercifully short springtime affair. Still, there are few things as frustrating as finally getting on the trail only to have your vistas blurred by watery eyes and the smell of evergreens lost in your sniffles. And there's plenty of it going around: Researchers at the American Academy of Allergies, Asthma, and Immunology estimate that allergic rhinitis, or hay fever, affects at least 36 million Americans each year. But don't despair. Doctors agree there's no reason seasonal allergies should keep you from enjoying your favorite backcountry haunts. With the right mix of preparation, knowledge of when plants pollinate, and treatment options, you'll be able to stop and smell the grasses without giving Griffiths a run for her record.

"The first thing you should do is find out what you're allergic to," advises Adela Taylor, M.D., a physician at the North Carolina-based Mountain Allergy Clinic. Although culprits differ regionally, the most common backcountry allergens include mold spores and pollens from grasses, ragweed, and trees, especially birch and oak. Contrary to popular belief, wildflowers probably won't make you sneeze. Their pollen is too sticky and heavy, says Dr. Taylor, to float up your nose.

If you're not sure what's causing your reaction, a simple skin test by your doctor can pinpoint it. "Then you can determine what time of year you should or shouldn't go camping," Dr. Taylor says. Use this timeline as a rough guide.

> In the Lower 48, grasses start to pollinate in May and June, but can continue through the summer at higher elevations.

> Sagebrush, ragweed, and tumbleweed pollinate in the fall.

> Trees release billions of pollen cells in early spring, often before leaves appear.

> Molds can release spores for much of the year if their habitat remains moist.

Short of searching the trail for pollen, specific grasses, or those wispy feathers from pollinating cottonwood trees, there's not much you can do to assess allergen levels on your chosen route. You can check daily pollen counts at the National Pollen Network (www.allernet.com/DAILY), but "your eyes and nose will probably tell you first," says

Dr. Taylor.

If you get caught hiking in the wrong season, try one of these trail-proven tricks to mitigate your allergy symptoms.

> Time hikes for mornings, when plant pollens are heavy with dew.

> Sit tight when the wind blows. "Breezy days are going to be worse," says Richard Honsinger, Ph.D., a clinical professor at the University of New Mexico, "because pollens can drift in the wind for hundreds of miles."

> Pick trails and tent sites above treeline. You'll find the fewest irritants on rocky terrain.

> Find a lake and pitch camp on the downwind side. The water may collect allergens as the wind blows them across, says Kim Spence, M.D., a family physician and backpacker based in Carbondale, CO.

> Avoid the irritants completely. If you're allergic to juniper, head east into forests of oak and elm. Does hickory make you sneeze? Hike in Washington's Olympic National Park.

> Load up on antihistamines. Nondrowsy drugs such as Allegra, Claritin (available over-the-counter this spring), and even the asthma medication Singulair can work wonders in stopping allergy symptoms. Ask your doctor.

> Try saltwater. Caught in the woods without your meds? Flushing your eyes and nose with saline removes the allergens and can dramatically improve your symptoms, says Dr. Spence.