Herbal Relief for Seasonal Allergies

Breathe easy this spring

| March/April 2002

If springtime in the air has got you running for the tissues, you’re not alone. Each year, millions of Americans seek relief from seasonal allergy symptoms that accompany the vernal regreening. Pollens, molds, grasses, and budding tree growth are common culprits, contributing to the classic presentation of hay fever—itchy, watery eyes, runny nose, sneezing, and sinus congestion with pressure and/or pain. For many allergy sufferers, springtime pleasures such as gardening and hiking can induce persistent allergic reactions that interfere with daily activities such as work, school, and restful sleep.

As a pharmacist, I know that allergy medicine is big business, with a vast array of nonprescription products to address nearly any complaint. While most of these products provide prompt and effective relief of the toughest symptoms, they are not appropriate for all patients. Apart from their side effects such as sedation or nervousness, allergy and sinus medications may be incompatible with certain prescription regimens or the chronic health conditions they treat, including high blood pressure, asthma, glaucoma, prostate problems, anxiety, and attention deficit disorder. Even in the best of situations, allergy medicines may produce side effects that limit their use on a regular basis.

More and more, holistically minded patients are looking for herbal alternatives to the traditional drugstore offerings. With their gentle actions and minimal side effects, botanical remedies are a good option for many patients. Unlike a trip to the big chain drugstore, the preparation of natural remedies is more akin to a craft than a chore, beckoning us to slow our pace, reflecting on the beauty and usefulness of nature’s abundance. We begin to glimpse the secret life of many of our windowsill herbs and spring garden annuals and to reclaim a sense of autonomy and participation in our own well-being.

As you explore the fresh alternatives that follow, pay careful attention to the symptoms they treat. Seasonal allergies comprise a variety of symptoms; targeting them specifically with the appropriate remedy is the first step to success with any regimen. And as always, remember that herbal alternatives themselves may be incompatible with pregnancy, nursing, pediatric care, and certain prescription drugs and medical conditions. Apprise your doctor and pharmacist of any supplement use to ensure compatibility, safety, and efficacy.

Nasal decongestants

Nasal congestion with pressure and pain is a hallmark of seasonal allergy, a setback in the body’s defense plan. In a perfect world, the immune system implements a simple yet ingenious strategy to expel offensive allergens—immobilizing pollen grains, mold spores, dust mites, and the like by coating them with layers of mucous. Coughing, sneezing, or nose blowing clears congested pathways of mucous buildup, whisking away trapped allergens in the process. While annoying, a runny nose and productive cough are signs that an immune response is in progress.

Problems can arise, however, when excess mucous accumulates in sinus passages, exerting pressure behind the eyes and across the face and forehead. Nasal decongestants are the traditional drugs of choice, constricting swollen sinus passages and promoting drainage with products such as Sudafed, Tavist-D, and the multitude of choices that boast “non-drowsy” daytime formulas. Pseudoephedrine is the most common active ingredient and can have strongly stimulating effects in many users. Rapid heartbeat, nervousness, and insomnia limit its use in many cases, while a variety of health-condition and drug interactions also raise concern. Nasal spray decongestants such as Afrin and Neo-Synephrine provide alternatives to the oral route, delivering medication directly to nasal membranes. These products are for short-term use only and carry concerns of their own, including dependence problems, rebound congestion, and certain health-condition warnings.

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