One of the nicest things to look forward to in the spring is the opening of windows to freshen the household and add light. Unfortunately, by the time it is warm enough to do so, it is also warm enough for pollen to become a regular inhabitant of the spring landscape. People with seasonal allergies dread this because it means they will need to load up on antihistamines and decongestants, and outdoor activities will add new activities to their list of things to do: the constant blowing of runny noses, the frequent rubbing of itching and watery eyes, and the endless fits of sneezing.
What causes allergies?Allergic rhinitis is the more clinical term that describes the cluster of adverse immune system reactions in the nasal and sinus passages caused by allergens. In April, this usually (but not always, see below) means some form of seasonal pollen. Most likely it is tree pollen, whereas the summer brings on grass pollen, followed by ragweed pollen. Any and all of these allergens create an inflammatory response for those who are allergic to them, which can include symptoms like increased mucus production, swollen tissues in the nose and sinuses, and itching of the eyes, nose, even the ear canals. As a result, people with allergies can be easily spotted in the spring landscape. They're the ones carrying the tissue box to their kids' Saturday morning soccer games, the ones constantly clearing their throats or coughing in quiet places, or the ones having rapid-fire sneezing fits at the grocery store. They're also the mouth breathers and snorers we share our beds with.
Why do allergies create sleep problems?The swelling, congestion, rawness, and itching that accompanies allergic reactions can make it difficult to breathe at night as you sleep. Add to that the side effects of allergy medications, which can cause dehydration of the nasal and sinus passages, daytime fatigue, or nighttime sleeplessness, and you've got all the makings of a bad night of sleep. If, night after night, these problems continue without relief, then you could enter a new realm of concern: that of sleep deprivation. When we don't get adequate sleep over the course of several nights, even weeks, this deprivation of sleep can erode the protective qualities of the immune system, which can then, ironically, worsen your allergies! We just encountered a temporary insult to our sleep schedules with the annual time change, why add to the misery?
Are all allergies seasonal?No! There are many common pollutants in the environment that we can become oversensitive to. During the winter, poor indoor air quality can lead to other kinds of allergies. The kinds of allergens we may be sensitive to then include:
- Dust mites
- Household chemicals
- Mold and mildew
- Pet dander
What to do when allergies are ruining your sleepUltimately, tell your doctor. You may have undiagnosed allergies, or the ones you are aware of may be undertreated. The best way to know is to pay a visit to your health clinic and get some tests done. Most solutions, beyond treating your allergies, are practical.
Household maintenance and cleaningVigilance can lead to big payoffs for sleep.
- Use a whole-house dehumidifier to keep a damp home dry during any season if you want to prevent the growth of mold and mildew.
- Replace your air conditioning system filters regularly
- Use HEPA filters on your heating and air conditioning ducts to keep air clean
- Open up windows only on low pollen days to circulate fresh air (you can follow pollen counts online)
- Close windows at night; most pollen is released in the early morning hours and can be blamed for those mornings when you wake up puffy eyes and congested
- Keep windows and doors closed when pollen counts are high
- Vacuum and dust regularly
- Wash bed sheets frequently and use pillow protectors to prevent dust mite activity
- Don’t hang sheets outside, they’ll just bring pollen in with them
- Use cleaning products with natural, hypoallergenic ingredients to sanitize your home
Personal careEven if you are taking all your allergy prescriptions, they may not always completely provide the relief you need. Added self-care measures are worth it to protect your much-needed sleep when seasonal allergies hit hardest in the spring.
- Drink more water to keep secretions loose and easy to clear
- Use saline irrigation (such as a saltwater sprays or a Neti pot) to keep the sinus and nasal passages moist and clear of mucus
- Elevate the head of your bed by 3 inches to help encourage sinus drainage
- Use a personal menthol humidifier to open up your sinuses and encourage them to drain; small, portable menthol inhalers can help at bed's side, in a pinch
- Shower before bed to remove pollen from the skin and hair
- Keep your animal pals clean and groomed
- Don't smoke, and opt for a gas fireplace versus a wood-burning one