HEALTH AND FITNESS: Exercising during allergy season

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The spring season is approaching our area, which means warmer climates, flowering, green grass and, for many, allergies to certain seasons. Seasonal intolerance is caused by plant pollen. Tree pollen is the most common in the spring, grass and ragweed summer and autumn, respectively. Symptoms of allergies – watery eyes, runny nose, sneezing, congestion and cough – can begin within 5 to 10 minutes of sensitive exposure and last for hours.

Occasionally allergic reactions are an unusual response to the body’s immune system. Inhaled pollen acts as an allergen, which stimulates the immune system to produce antibodies, including IgE. Antibodies are produced whenever the immune system interacts with an external antigen, whether it is a virus or pollen. IgE stimulates specialized cells in the airways called mast cells to produce histamines, which cause common symptoms of allergies at certain times of the year. This is the same process that causes allergies to dust, edible animals, and certain foods.

Since histamines are an important step in creating an allergic reaction, seasonal allergies can be treated with antihistamine drugs such as fexofenadine (Allegra), loratadine (Claritin), cetirizine (Zyrtec) and diphenhydramine. (Benadryl). Some antihistamines include decongestant (Claritin-D, for example).

Symptoms of allergies can be reduced by reducing pollen exposure. This means keeping the windows of your house and car closed and reducing outdoor activity when pollen levels are very high, especially in the morning, on windy days and when pollen levels are high. Pollen levels are often reported in weather forecasts.

People often ask if it is safe to exercise if they do not feel comfortable with the season. In most cases, the answer is yes. Symptoms of allergies are usually the same as cold symptoms, so the general advice about exercise with the flu also applies: If the symptoms are above your neck (runny nose, watery eyes, sneezing), it is safe to exercise. That is to say, allergies are based on pollination and the more you smell, the worse your symptoms become. As your breathing increases significantly during exercise, so does your exposure to pollen.

There are some situations in which physical exercise can have serious consequences. Exercise-induced bronchospasm, also called asthma caused by exercise, is a condition that affects most people with asthma, many of whom suffer from allergies at certain times of the year. EIB is thought to be caused by cooling and drying of the airways due to high air intake during exercise or exposure to airborne substances, especially from pollutants, or pollen. The effects of EIB on airway congestion, severely limit air flow in the lungs. Asthmatics usually carry a rescue inhaler (bronchodilator) during exercise for this reason.

Interestingly, the EIB also applies to athletes, including those competing at the Olympic level. It is most common for athletes competing in outdoor winter events (cooling and air conditioning) as well as indoor ice events (pollution from snowmobile equipment). With careful warming and the use of certain approved medications, athletes with EIB-resistant allergies can successfully compete at the elite level.

Since most of us do not reach the level of physical exertion, there is no reason to allow physical discomfort to stop you from exercising. You may be able to exercise outdoors on days when pollen levels are low, especially if you do low-level exercise like walking. Antihistamines can help reduce symptoms and should not interfere with physical activity. If you are comfortable going back to the gym, traveling on the train or indoor track or participating in an exercise class are great ways to stay active on days when outdoor exercise just won’t work. By taking certain precautionary measures, you can and should exercise even if you have certain seasonal illnesses.

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