Not only does the sheer misery induced by allergy symptoms keep you awake at night, but your body’s immunological response to those allergens disrupts the systems set up to regulate your sleep. So the key to a good night’s sleep is to keep allergens at bay—or, when that’s simply impossible, find a way to minimize your body’s reaction to them. Here’s how to do it.
1. MAKE A BATTLE PLAN. Get an ID on the allergens that are driving you crazy, find out when and how they appear, then formulate a battle plan with your doctor. Include everything from reducing contact with the allergen to treating it with medication.
If your allergies aren’t immediately obvious to you and your doctor, ask your doctor for a referral to an allergist in your community. Or go to www.aaaai.org, click on “patients and consumers,” then click on “find an allergist.” Your allergist will run a series of skin or blood tests to reveal specific allergens.
2. WASH. When allergens, dust, and mold enter your nasal passages, they tend to get stuck in the membrane lining those passages. Inflammation sets in, your nose becomes swollen and clogged, and a nasty sinus infection can be the result.
Fortunately, however, “nasal irrigation, if it is done correctly and gently, can remove allergens, irritants, and inflammatory mucus,” says William H. Anderson, M.D., a member of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. Doing this is helpful for everyone, he adds, but for those with a tendency toward sinus infections, it’s particularly recommended.
To wash out your nasal passages, stand by the bathroom sink first thing in the morning, wash your hands with soap and water, then fill a bowl with 2 cups of water that feels as though it’s around body temperature. Mix in 12 teaspoon salt and stir to dissolve. (If you are sensitive to iodine, use non-iodized salt.) Then pick up a small bulb syringe (available from your local drugstore) and squeeze out all the air. Put the narrow end into the saltwater solution and release the bulb to suck up the saltwater into the bulb. Squirt the water into the sink.
Now bend over the sink, squeeze the air out of the bulb once again, put the narrow end into the saltwater, release the bulb, and suck up the saltwater. Insert the tip of the syringe into one nostril—no farther than the width of your fingertip—and tilt the syringe tip toward the outer corner of your eye. Gently release the bulb and allow the water to gently squirt into your nose as you continue to lean over the sink.
Let the water drain out of your nostril back into the sink. Don’t be alarmed if it comes out of your other nostril or your mouth. Both nostrils and the back of your mouth are all connected.
Repeat the procedure, switch nostrils, and then wash the second nostril twice. Wash out the bulb with fresh clean water several times, then store it, tip down, in a cup.
3. SQUIRT. “Nasal saline sprays can be very helpful,” says Dr. Anderson. Use them throughout the day and particularly at night before bed. Avoid daily use of nasal vasoconstricting nose sprays, such as Afrin. If you use them for more than three days, you will become addicted. The nasal passages will swell and obstruct airway passages until the effect wears off—another three days.
4. FORGET OTC DECONGESTANTS. Over-the-counter decongestants can cause insomnia, says Dr. Anderson. If sleep is your objective, forget about taking ’em.PRETREAT.
5. PRETREAT. Since your immune system responds to the allergen with inflammation and that’s what swells shut your nasal passages, prevent the inflammation by using a prescription anti-inflammatory nasal spray, says Dr. Anderson. Brands inlclude Flonase, Nasonex, Veramyst, and Nasacort. All are effective.
6. LOOK FOR THE NEWER ANTIHISTAMINES. Older antihistamines can cause dry mouth or, when sold combined with decongestants, prevent sleep. “Newer antihistamines—including loratadine (generic Claritin), fexofenadine (generic Allegra), prescription Zyrtec, and prescription Clarinex don’t interfere with sleep like some of the older ones do,” says Dr. Anderson. Check with your doctor to see if one of them is right for you.
7. SHOWER WITH EUCALYPTUS. Head into the bathroom, turn on the shower, and fill the room with steam. Then sprinkle a half-dozen drops of essential oil of eucalyptus on your wet bath mitt, lather the mitt with an unscented soap, and wash your entire body from top to bottom. By the time you hit your feet, your nose will be breathing freely, your sinuses will be clear, and your throat will feel soothed and moisturized.
For an extra treat after you shampoo, use a few drops of eucalyptus in the final rinse for your hair. Keep it out of your eyes.
8. RINSE OFF. To keep pollen out of the bedroom, shower right before bed, use a dryer-dried towel, and don dryer-dried bedclothes.
9. HIDE OUT. Hot, dry, and windy weather can each send dust, pollen, and molds skittering through your windows at home, work, in your car—virtually everywhere. So stay indoors with windows closed when those conditions are present during your allergy season. Schedule shopping and outdoor activities when it’s windless, cloudy, or even rainy. There’s less pollen in the air.
10. CHECK THE POLLEN COUNT. If you have a pollen allergy, go to www.aaaai.org, click on “patients and consumers,” then click on “pollen count” and follow the prompts to see what’s pollinating in your area and how heavy the levels are. Plan outdoor activities when the counts are low; schedule indoor activities when the counts are high.
11. CLOSE WINDOWS IN THE EARLY MORNING. Pollen is usually emitted between 5:00 and 10:00 A.M. To avoid giving yourself a big dose before you even open your peepers, close windows the night before.
12. EXERCISE AFTER 10:00 A.M.. You’ll breathe better and get a better workout if you exercise after that 5:00 to 10:00 A.M. blast of pollen.
13. SCHEDULE VACATIONS DURING YOUR ALLERGY SEASON. Why not skip your allergy season altogether? Try vacationing in another part of the world while your allergens are blooming at home.
14. HIRE A LAWN PERSON. Mowing the grass stirs up a textbook’s worth of pollens and molds, and raking leaves does the same thing. Hire a professional to do both—and suggest they wear a mask.
15. SCALD THE WASH AND RINSE WELL. A study at Yonsei University in South Korea looked at what it took to clean dust mites, dog dander, and tree pollen—three of the most common allergens—off your sheets.
For dust mites it turns out that cold water killed 5 to 8 percent. Warm water killed 7 to 11 percent. Hot water—60°C or 140°F—killed 100 percent.
For dog dander the results were similar—although nearly all allergens were removed at all wash temperatures when rinsing twice or more.
For tree pollen using hot water was more effective than other temperatures. Rinsing at least once removed tree pollen at all temperatures.
16. WASH AND WASH AGAIN. Wash clothes and bedding weekly, says Dr. Anderson. It’s the only way to stay on top of the allergens that disrupt sleep.
17. USE THE DRYER. Hanging laundry on the line allows a zillion pollens and molds to collect on sheets, clothes, and towels. When you fold your laundry, drop it into the laundry basket, and haul it back into your home, you’re contaminating your house with millions upon millions of the very things to which you may be allergic.
18. REDUCE THE LOAD. To help reduce dust mites—which are everywhere in every home and aggravate every allergy—vacuum rugs and blinds often, says Dr. Anderson. Use a high-quality vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter. Good vacuums will also pick up pet dander.
19. DOUBLE BAG. You’re more likely to make a clean sweep of dust mites if you double bag your vacuum cleaner.
20. REDUCE HUMIDITY. Dust mites love moist areas. To discourage them from colonizing your home, use a dehumidifier to keep humidity below 50 percent, suggests Dr. Anderson. And don’t forget to run an exhaust fan in the bathroom when you shower and in the kitchen when you cook.
21. INSTALL AIR-CONDITIONING. If you can afford it, it will help keep pollen out of your home and keep the humidity low to discourage dust mites. If you can’t afford to air-condition your whole space, try using a room-size window air conditioner in your bedroom. It may help you sleep. Budget not up to even that? Then buy a HEPA filter and shape it to fit over your bedroom window screen, says Dr. Anderson. The pollens won’t get in.
22. CHANGE FILTERS. On both cooling and heating systems. Those filters help trap allergens, but they’ll get clogged unless they’re changed every three months. HEPA filters are a bit pricey but are clearly the most effective.
23. BAN PETS. Not from your life, of course, but from your bedroom. A lot of people are apparently allergic to dog and cat dander without even being aware of it, says Dr. Anderson. They think their itchy nose and sneezing are due to something else altogether. But play it on the safe side. Let Beans or Spike or Rufus sleep in his own bed several rooms away from yours.
24. COVER THE MATTRESS. And especially the pillows. The cost of “allergy-proof” mattress and pillow covers can give you a heart attack, but those babies are worth their weight in gold. Dust mites are everywhere in everyone’s home—and one of their preferential living spaces is your mattress. Zipping up the mattress and pillows in a mite-proof cover assures that the little critters can’t interfere with your sleep.
25. BUY LEATHER. Leather does not collect dust mites the way fabric-covered furniture does, says Dr. Anderson. So buy leather-covered furniture where you can—vinyl where you can’t.
26. LEAVE YOUR FLOORS BARE. Wall-to-wall carpeting harbors dust mites and pollen, while hardwood, tile, and vinyl don’t. If you still crave something colorful on your floor, buy a few washable throw rugs and wash them weekly on a hot-water cycle.
27. KEEP AIR FRESH. In a study at the University of Washington in Seattle, researchers found that nearly half of all study participants with seasonal allergies also had allergy-type reactions to common household pollutants, such as household cleaning products, cigarette smoke, perfume, and aftershave. Why those with allergies were more likely to be sensitive to indoor pollutants isn’t known.
28. MONITOR BATHROOM, KITCHEN, AND BASEMENT. These are three areas that tend to be more humid than the rest of the home. As a result, they’re more prone to developing an allergy-triggering mold that will send spores winging their way through the entire house.To eliminate mold, use a cleaning solution containing 5 percent bleach and a small amount of detergent. Moldy wallpaper or carpeting should be ditched.