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Myths and Facts About Allergy Remedies

The truth about honey, probiotics, nasal sprays and more

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For the more than 50 million Americans who struggle with allergies each year, finding the right remedies for watery eyes, a runny nose and constant sneezing can be as aggravating as the symptoms themselves. But not all treatments offer the same level of relief. Here are which at-home and over-the-counter remedies that experts say to try — and which to toss:

What helps

  • Nasal irrigation. Practice makes perfect when it comes to this expert-endorsed technique, which involves flushing saline solution in one nostril and out the other to remove allergens and debris from the nose and sinuses. Since you’ll “rinse” with your head titled over the sink, gravity does all the work for you. Ronald Saff, M.D., a board-certified allergist and assistant clinical professor of medicine at the Florida State University College of Medicine, recommends getting started with a drugstore kit. These include a squirt bottle or a teapot-shaped vessel, which you’ll fill with preboiled or distilled water and mix with premeasured salt packets (also included) to form a saline solution. Done properly, side effects are rare, and relief is instant.   
  • Nasal sprays. Available without a prescription, corticosteroid sprays help by reducing swelling and mucus in the nasal passageways. A 2008 joint task force of allergy and immunology experts in the United States ranked intranasal corticosteroids as the “most effective medication” for controlling the symptoms of allergic rhinitis. Since it can take one to two weeks to experience the maximum benefit, start using these sprays before you expect your symptoms to set in.
  • OTC meds. Over-the-counter antihistamines help disrupt the revved-up immune system activity that causes allergy symptoms. If you’re worried about drowsiness as a side effect, look for “second-generation” antihistamines (like cetirizine, fexofenadine, or loratadine). As with nasal sprays, starting the medicine before you expect symptoms is ideal.
  • Lifestyle changes. Avoiding prolonged exposure to pollen is also key. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America recommends keeping doors and windows closed during allergy season, limiting outdoor activity when pollen counts are highest (maps on or from the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology can help you track local levels) and changing out of and washing clothes worn during outdoor activities.
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What (probably) doesn’t

  • Honey. Claims that the pollen in local honey helps inoculate allergy sufferers are, unfortunately, false, says Janna Tuck, M.D., an allergist and spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. That’s because people just aren’t allergic to pollen from wildflowers or flowering trees: Grasses and weeds, such as ragweed, are the true culprits. While a small amount of problematic pollen may still work its way into honey, you’d need to consume “gallons and gallons” of the stuff to be exposed in a meaningful way, Tuck says. So save this “cure” for your teacup.  
  • Probiotics. Tuck has also seen a rise in probiotic supplements aimed at allergy sufferers. While there is a relationship between the gut and the immune system, Tuck says more research is needed to develop a targeted probiotic treatment for allergies. For now, she says, products such as prebiotic lollipops (which claim to stoke the growth of helpful probiotic bacteria to fight allergies) aren’t likely to do you much good.
  • Acupuncture. Like honey, acupuncture probably won’t hurt you, but the experts say it’s also unlikely to help. While some studies have demonstrated a benefit, others have attributed acupuncture’s success to the placebo effect. Both Tuck and Saff recommend looking to other methods for proven relief.

What to look forward to

  • An alternative to allergy shots. Long popular in Europe, sublingual immunotherapy, recently received FDA approval for limited use in the United States. Rather than visiting an allergist multiple times weekly for allergy shots, sublingual immunotherapy allows patients to self-administer custom-tailored drops (which contain trace amounts of allergens) under the tongue on a daily basis from the comfort of home. Though it requires a doctor’s visit to get started, sublingual immunotherapy is a World Health Organization-endorsed alternative to allergy shots, and Saff says it’s a safe, effective and convenient option for patients who haven’t been helped by other methods.
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