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Having allergies seems like an easy-to-fix health issue. Seasonal congestion or red eyes are a relatively minor problem for most people and they can be managed with an over-the-counter antihistamine.
Allergies, however, can be much more complicated. They can become a chronic condition and affect other areas of our lives including our behavior, what we eat, and our quality of sleep.
Depending on what you’re allergic to, allergies can cause symptoms for a few weeks a year or year-round. For me, environmental allergies caused many more problems than just a stuffy nose and itchy eyes. My skin, mood, and social activities were all affected and my quality of sleep became my biggest problem.
In this article, we’ll discuss how environmental allergies can affect our sleep and ways to improve it.
I Couldn’t Get Enough Sleep
I didn’t realize I had allergies until adulthood. After being tested I looked back at my childhood and realized I’d been suffering a long time.
In high school, I constantly felt exhausted. I slept every chance I could and attributed my fatigue to having an active life. I played sports, hung out with friends, and hit the gym.
I remember struggling to get up in the morning, but I also understood that most of my peers also struggled to wake up. I thought it was normal so I fought the fatigue and pushed through life.
In college, I began to realize something was wrong with my health. I had roommates and I witnessed their sleep habits and I wondered why I had such low energy.
I also began to realize that I had trouble breathing out of my nose. My nose was always stuffed up.
Was I just born that way?
I wanted to get help so I visited a dermatologist for rashes and asked about allergies. I also enrolled in skin and sleep studies at the University of California San Diego. My sleep apnea test came back negative and the doctor prescribed a nasal spray.
By my late 20’s I was sleeping 12 hours a day and waking up exhausted. I eventually found an allergist and I was tested for allergies. The tests came back positive and I was diagnosed with allergic rhinitis.
Immediately I began making changes to my home environment.
Within a year I began sleeping better. I began having dreams again and waking up feeling refreshed. My sleep had improved, but why?
I believe it was due to my allergic rhinitis. I could hardly breathe through my nose and likely struggled to breathe when I was sleeping.
As my allergic rhinitis disappeared I began to wake up feeling rested. I also stopped itching my skin at night (something that I did involuntarily growing up).
Let’s take a look at how you can sleep easier when allergies are at their worst
Most people who have environmental allergies battle seasonal pollen. Spring is notoriously difficult for people with allergies to tree pollen. Summer is the worst for grasses and fall is problematic for weeds.
Tree pollen season is the shortest, followed by longer seasons of grass and weeds. These allergy seasons all overlap, some years more than others.
If you experience allergies every year, it’s important to anticipate your symptoms and take action before they begin. Once the inflammation and irritation begin, it might take weeks for your immune system to settle down.
If your allergies are impacting your sleep, it’s likely because of a congested nose, itchy skin, or breathing.
Below are a few of my best tips. Feel free to use them as a to-do list so your home stays allergy free. I bet you’ll sleep better as a result!
- Keep the doors and windows closed
- Change the HVAC filter to a filter with a high MERV rating
- Thoroughly dust the house (don’t forget the fan blades)
- Do laundry more often (learn how to wash clothes and bedding)
- Shower and shampoo hair nightly before sleeping
- Take off your shoes and leave outside
- Begin a weekly routine of washing your pet
- Consider using a HEPA air purifier
- If you walk or ride a bike to work consider a stylish allergy mask
- Begin taking a daily antihistamine prior to experiencing symptoms
This may seem like a long list but you can pick and choose which actions you take based on your symptoms and priorities.
Seasonal allergens will find a way of getting inside your house but you can do a good job at reducing their presence.
I found the HVAC filters work particularly well and I run the HVAC on the vent setting every day for an hour just to clear the air in my house. A high-quality HVAC filter will capture pollen and dust mites from the air.
You might be wondering how these tips will help you sleep better at night. If you’re like me, your sleep will be affected by the symptoms you develop from allergens.
If you can minimize your physical symptoms, such as allergic rhinitis, then your sleep will likely improve too.
Quality sleep isn’t achieved by a single quick-fix solution, rather, it’s done with a number of small changes that reduce your exposure to allergens.
Year-Round Allergies Affecting Your Sleep
Year round allergies are slightly more difficult to manage because many of their sources reside indoors. Year-round allergens include pets (dogs and cats) as well as dust mites.
In the U.S. many families live alongside their pets indoors. Even people allergic to pets might be unwilling to remove them from the home.
Dust mites, on the other hand, cannot be seen unless under a microscope and they live in our beds, pillows, and carpets. Dust mites survive by eating dust (our shed skin).
Dust mite allergies can be a major disruptor of sleep. If you wake up with itchy skin, puffy eyes, and/or a congested nose or a cough, it might be because of dust mites or pet allergies.
If you suffer from dust mite or pet allergies, you don’t need to worry about what’s outside. Instead, you should be concerned with the inside of the house. Below are a few of my best tips for year-round allergens.
- Reconsider pet presence indoors
- Consider hard flooring to deter dust mites in carpets
- Regularly dust and clean carpets, rugs, and mats (they harbor dust and pet dander)
- Routinely open windows and doors to let air circulate throughout the house
- Monitor humidity (dust mites thrive in humidity – learn about dehumidifiers)
- Invest in an allergen-proof pillow and mattress covers (for dust mites and pet allergens)
- Utilize HVAC filters with a high MERV rating
- Purchase a HEPA air purifier for the bedroom
- Keep pets out of the bedroom and away from the bed
- Take a daily over-the-counter antihistamine
Year round allergies cause us to spend a lot of money on medicine and can cause chronic health problems. If you find that you’re spending a lot of money to deal with your allergy symptoms, it may be wise to ask your allergist about allergy shots or drops (allergy immunotherapy).
Allergy immunotherapy is a time investment but it can reduce your symptoms and in some cases, it can cure allergies. Over time you should save money because there’s less need for medication.
I’ve been on allergy immunotherapy for a few years and my symptoms have decreased significantly. Although I still have a few allergy symptoms, my fatigue is virtually gone and I sleep great.
Without allergy shots, I’m confident I’d still be suffering from allergic rhinitis and sleeping poorly.
Each year, more and more people visit allergists in search of relief. Estimates believe the allergy treatment markets will reach 41 billion dollars by 2025. Allergies may seem like a minor issue but when they start to affect other areas of our life they become a big problem.
Most people experience allergy symptoms including asthma, eczema, rhinitis, conjunctivitis, ear and sinus infections. The unlucky few, like me, will experience multiple symptoms and struggle to manage them.
The first step in addressing your allergies is to get tested. Once you know the substances you’re allergic to, you can develop a plan to minimize them.
You’ll want to know whether your allergies are seasonal or year-round and whether they are indoors or outdoors. Once you’ve identified the seasons you can create a checklist and take action to anticipate your symptoms.
Taking action before you experience symptoms might save you from feeling run down and tired during allergy season.
If you find yourself struggling to deal with your allergy symptoms, I encourage you to make an appointment with an allergist and discuss the option of allergy immunotherapy (shots, drops, or tablets). While allergy immunotherapy doesn’t work well for food allergies, it works great for environmental allergies and could improve your quality of life.