NEW YORK CITY — Spring is upon us, and with an early spring comes the pollen that triggers sneezing, runny noses and itchy eyes.
"What’s happening is we have a warming climate, which means the allergy season is starting two to three weeks earlier this year," said allergist Dr. Clifford Bassett, the founder and medical director of Allergy and Asthma Care of New York. "And it’s going longer into the fall, into October, so we have a longer period of time for people to be exposed to pollen."
Not only does pollen season last longer, but rising carbon dioxide levels are increasing pollen production.
Elevated CO2 levels "tell certain plants to produce three to four more times as much pollen, and certain plants may actually have more potent pollen," according to Dr. Basset.
For allergy sufferers in New York City, the past month's significant fluctuations in temperature — from record highs to forecasted cold snaps — aren't helping matters this year.
"Temperature changes can make your allergies feel worse," said Dr. Purvi Parikh, an allergist with the Allergy & Asthma Associates of Murray Hill and a spokesperson for the nonprofit Allergy and Asthma Network. "The reason is allergens cause inflammation, but drastic changes in temperature and air pressure also cause inflammation — so it’s kind of like a double whammy."
So what should New Yorkers do to protect their immune systems from typically harmless substances that set off antibody production and misery?
At home, you can apply these strategies to fight pollen, pet dander, dust and mold room by room:
? The Kitchen
The allergens you're most likely to encounter in the kitchen are mold and cockroaches, experts say.
Sources of mold include excessive moisture around your refrigerator, unclean dishes and food waste.
“Whenever you smell mildew, you’ve got a mold problem," said Bassett, who recommends checking refrigerators for any leaks and keeping kitchen areas as clean as possible. (The latter keeps the cockroaches at bay, too.)
He advises his patients to use natural cleaning agents tested by Consumer Reports and the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, rather than chemical sprays and aerosols that can irritate the eyes, nose and throat.
Pollen can be an issue in the kitchen, too, Parikh said.
”If you have windows and it’s during pollen season, we always recommend keeping your windows closed — especially in the morning," she said. "That’s the time when plants release the most pollen and people are generally in their kitchens, preparing breakfast.”
? The Living Room
For seating in your living room, Bassett recommends modern furnishings made of materials like leather, wood, metal and plastic.
"Things that can be more easily cleaned are less of a source for indoor allergens," he said.
If your upholstered couch isn't going anywhere, it's wise to vacuum it frequently, Parikh advised.
The same goes for rugs and carpeting, which trap allergens like pet dander and dust mite droppings.
Keeping an air purifier in the living room is also a good idea, Parikh said. Do remember to change or clean filters every few months as they collect soot, debris and allergens over time.
As for window treatments, opt for washable material curtains over horizontal blinds, which accumulate difficult-to-clean dust.
And if you have a green thumb, consider getting air-purifying houseplants, such as aloe and spider plants, for the room. Researchers recommend a ratio of one plant per 100 square feet of space.
? The Bedroom
The bedroom, according to Parikh, "is the most important room to keep allergen-free, because all of us spend the most time at once in the bedroom while we’re sleeping eight to ten hours a night."
The three most obvious ways to accomplish that: clean the room frequently, shower before bed and keep your pet — no matter how snuggly — out.
Both allergists recommend air purifiers to improve air quality. Bassett is particularly fond of HEPA, or high-efficiency particulate air, filters, but they require annual replacements and may be cost-prohibitive for some.
For those who have allergies to dust mite feces, the doctors recommend special bedding and mattress protectors.
"Dust-mite covers that zip around your mattress and box spring, as well as your pillow, have been the only thing in research data that has shown to reduce exposure to dust mites for people who suffer from dust-mite induced allergies and asthma," Parikh said.
? The Bathroom
The main concern here is mold and mildew.
”You want to have a vent-filter to the outside air, if possible, or an overhead fan," Bassett said.
When cleaning, use the above-mentioned green cleaning products, he instructed.