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Before You Smell the Lilacs: Being Well with Spring Allergies

While flowers budding from the earth bring a feeling of renewal in the spring, many of us also have been suffering from high pollen counts with watery eyes, itchy noses, sneezing, coughs and wheezing. Here are a few complementary health tips to help get through the seasonal allergies:

Acupuncture: I have suffered from allergies and asthma since I was in medical school in Miami, living with constant exposure to tropical flora. About 4 years ago, I started to go for acupuncture treatments, and I noticed that my allergy symptoms improved. I used to take 4 different medications, including a steroid inhaler, nasal spray, and antihistamine. I weaned off of these medications for about 3 years. I now only need a rescue dose if I have an exacerbation, the last time being about 1 year ago. I have personally found that acupuncture can help as a powerful adjunct to western treatments, potentiating the benefit of medications and allowing me to need them on a less frequent basis.

In fact, acupuncture has been studied as a great treatment for allergic rhinitis. A study that included 45 people with hay fever showed that acupuncture worked as well as antihistamines in improving symptoms, and the effects seemed to last longer. (1) Another study published in 2013 in the Annals of Internal Medicine enrolled 422 persons with seasonal allergic rhinitis and sensitivity to birch and grass pollen. Researchers investigated the possible benefit of acupuncture plus rescue medication (cetirizine, or Zyrtec), sham acupuncture plus rescue medication, or rescue medication alone, with 12 treatments given over 8 weeks. The study found that real Chinese acupuncture, compared to sham and rescue medication alone, led to statistically significant improvement in disease-specific quality of life and antihistamine use. The researchers did state that the clinical significance of these findings remains uncertain, and thus more studies are needed. (2)

While Western science has not definitely shown how acupuncture works for allergies, by Eastern medicine this modality helps to improve the immune system. By decreasing stress, the body can begin to heal on its own.

Nasal rinse: Our nasal passages are a prime entryway for foreign bodies to come into our system, and thus flushing the sinuses is extremely important to clear the passages of pollen, dust, and mold. Use warm water with salt in a Neti pot. The NeilMed Sinus rinse is another option that many people find more comfortable. You can purchase these at your local drug store. I recommend that you use the sinus rinse twice a day. Once you start, keep using it even after allergy season is over, as nasal rinsing is extremely beneficial for the immune system.

Lock up: Keep the doors and windows closed! Yes, we want to feel that breeze and sun on our faces, especially after the long winter... But do you really want to be sneezing all day? Keep updated on the pollen count and minimize outdoor activities on the bad days. Closing the windows, even when driving, will help reduce pollen transfer onto your clothes and into the house.

Purify: Change your air filters. Consider investing in an air cleaner/purifier, especially with a HEPA (or High-Efficiency Particulate Arrestance) filter, which will eliminate 99.97% of particles that are 0.3 microm, i.e. all the really small microscopic pollen, mold and dust that is floating in your home. Check that the purifier will be adequate for the room size. I have mine on all year long.

Capsaicin: First isolated in impure form as the active component of chili peppers, intranasal application of this chemical can help decrease nasal obstruction, rhinorrhea, and sneezing frequency. Capsaicin is initially irritating, but repeated use leads to desensitization of the area. While there is no consensus on dosages, a capsaicin formulation called Sinol Nasal Spray is available over the counter. (1)

Herbs: There are many herbs that are helpful for seasonal allergies, including menthol, butterbur, and stinging nettle. Tulsi, or holy basil, can also be very helpful for the immune system. During the spring and fall, I seep tulsi in hot water and drink the tea all day.

Of note, before starting herbal treatment, it is best to consult with an expert.

Essential Oils: Some essential oils that can help with symptoms of allergies include eucalyptus, peppermint, hyssop, lavender, lemon, rosemary, and tea tree, to name a few. (3) You can diffuse the oils through your office or home with a diffuser. Another option is to apply a blend as a chest rub or behind your ears to allow the aromatherapy to work through the day.


(1) Kushnir, N. "The role of decongestants, cromolyn, guafenesin, saline washes, capsaicin, leukotriene antagonists, and other treatments on rhinitis." Immunol Allergy Clin N Am 31 (2011) 601–617.

(2) Brinkhaus, B., et al. "Acupuncture in Patients With Seasonal Allergic Rhinitis: A Randomized Trial." Ann Intern Med. 2013;158(4):225-234

(3) Lawless, J. The Encyclopedia of Essential Oils: The Complete Guide to the Use of Aromatic Oils in Aromatherapy, Herbalism, Health and Well-being. HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, 2001.

Photo: Seetal Cheema Wellness, LLC. Charles River Esplanade, Boston, May 2015

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