The start of spring often comes with celebration and a sense of renewed hope. However, if you’re one of the 19 million Americans who suffer from seasonal allergies, you may not welcome spring with as much jubilation.
“This time of year is definitely the worst,” Neda Saraj, a Club Pilates instructor in Metro Atlanta tells Yahoo Life. “Stuffiness, constant congestion, sneezing, coughing. If it gets really bad, then my eyes get itchy, irritated and I just want to rub my eyes.” When these symptoms flare up, Saraj says she typically turns to a neti pot or over-the-counter allergy medications.
But doctors say there’s another line of defense Saraj and other allergy sufferers may have stockpiled thanks to the pandemic: face masks. Dr. Purvi Parikh is an Allergist and Immunologist at N.Y.U. Langone Health and she tells Yahoo Life, “The face masks definitely help with the airborne allergens, for the same reason they help protect you from viruses. Your nose and your mouth are covered, so you’re less likely to breathe in pollen, mold, animal dander, dust mites – all of the things that trigger allergies.”
SICK OF POLLEN? TRY THIS SECRET WEAPON
An allergy occurs when your body’s immune system overreacts to something that is normally harmless. This reaction produces antibodies called immunoglobulin E or IgE. “Those antibodies basically activate your allergy cells which then release a chemical called histamine into your body,” explains Parikh. “That can cause a whole host of problems, from itchy watery eyes, rash, it can trigger asthma attacks, and in some cases can even cause a life-threatening allergic reaction called anaphylactic shock.”
One of the most common allergens is the pesky pollen produced by trees, grasses and weeds. When these plant-based particles are inhaled through the mouth or nose, it can cause what’s known as allergic rhinitis or “hay fever”. Pollen particles range in size from 10 to 100 micrometers. For comparison, an N95 mask can block particles as tiny as 0.3 micrometers, making them very effective against pollen. “Similar to the viruses, an N95 is the most protective,” says Parikh. “Because they filter out 95% of particulate matter.”
Your nose and your mouth are covered, so you’re less likely to breathe in pollen, mold, animal dander, dust mites – all of the things that trigger allergies.”Dr. Purvi Parikh, Allergist and Immunologist at N.Y.U. Langone Health
In 2020, researchers in Israel conducted a study of nurses who suffer from seasonal allergies. The data showed the nurses who wore N95 or surgical masks experienced 40% fewer nasal allergy symptoms. Dr. Clifford Bassett, member of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America’s (AAFA) Medical Scientific Council and New York City allergist, tells Yahoo Life he also observed less seasonal allergy symptoms in his patients who wore masks during the COVID-19 pandemic.
For others, masks have been a vital tool even before COVID-19 came along. “I would actually have patients consider wearing masks when they went outdoors if they loved to garden, or if they were someone who needed to cut their grass, but were miserable from it,” Dr. Sandra Hong, an Allergist with Cleveland Clinic tells Yahoo Life. But no matter which style you prefer, Parikh says most masks will provide at least some relief. “The N95’s are very uncomfortable to wear, especially for long periods of time. So even if you wear a surgical or cloth mask it can still help you immensely.”
MASKS: ONE SIZE DOES NOT FIT ALL
Before you rush out to buy a bunch of masks that match your spring wardrobe, it’s important to consider some of the downsides. Dr. Brian Greenberg, Allergist and Immunologist with Providence Cedars-Sinai Tarzana Medical Center tells Yahoo Life not all noses respond well while under cover. “The nose is sensitive to the humidity, and it is sensitive to temperature. And now you’re re-breathing something that maybe came in at one temperature and goes out another temperature, comes in one humidity and comes out a different humidity.” Greenberg says a mask’s effectiveness also depends on an individual’s comfort level. “Certainly, in somebody that already has some compromise in their breathing whether that’s because of a stuffy nose or asthma or something like that, the sensation of not being able to breathe is really a problem for them.” And even if you do wear a mask during pollen season, Parikh suggests changing or washing it frequently. “You don’t want to keep putting the same mask that’s filled with pollen or other allergens back on your face every day.”
For the 60% of people who experience allergic conjunctivitis, or eye allergies, as part of their seasonal symptoms, face masks are not going to be much help. “We recommend having a shield over your eyes, by either wearing sunglasses or if you’re someone who wears contacts, you might want to opt for glasses, so you have a physical barrier,” says Parikh.
MASKS VS. MEDS
While masks can help keep pollen out of your nose and mouth, doctors agree they may not be the best long-term solution for those with severe allergies. “If with the mask you’re still suffering, then absolutely get an appropriate medication,” advises Parikh. “Especially if you’re having any breathing problems, so that’s like coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, because then it can be dangerous to not take the medication.”
There are a wide variety of allergy medications on the market. Among the most common are long-acting antihistamines which help with itching and sneezing and nasal steroid sprays that reduce inflammation. However, Hong says if you use a nasal spray, make sure you’re using it properly. “For the right nostril, point it towards the right ear and do the doses. Same thing with the left side: left side, left ear. The reason why is that we’ve got a side nasal septum that runs right down the center. And if you spray into it, you’re at a much higher risk of nose bleeds for one and you can cause what’s called a perforation, so you can cause a hole and do some damage in that tissue area.”
Another piece of advice: don’t wait until you’re covered in pollen to start taking your medication. Greenberg says it’s best to start a few weeks before the spring season arrives. “I always use holidays because it’s easier to remember. So maybe start up on your medicine on Valentine’s Day, and that way you know you’ve got a couple of weeks to gain control over this before we hit the heavy pollen period.”
Whether you reach for the mask or the meds this allergy season, Bassett says finding the solution that works best for you is what counts. “Allergies can be successfully managed. Work with an allergy specialist to help identify your allergic triggers and learn how to take the necessary steps to successfully manage your seasonal allergies.”