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Outdoor Exercise With Pollen Allergies (Nasal Allergies)

If you’re an exerciser who loves the outdoors but suffers from allergies, WebMD has tips to help you through pollen season.

Being active is a must for good health. But venturing outdoors when you have allergies requires a bit of preparation to avoid triggering allergy symptoms.

Lisa Hall, 49, does just that. As a distance runner with allergies and asthma, Hall plans ahead. "I never go for a run without using my rescue inhaler (a bronchodilator that helps prevent asthma symptoms) 20 to 30 minutes before leaving the house," says Hall, the Huntsville, Ala.-based author of Taking Charge of Your Own Health (Harvest House Pub., Dec. 2009).

"Sometimes I still struggle for the first couple of miles, even with the inhaler, but I know if I can get through those first few miles I'll feel much better for the remainder of the run," says Hall, who regularly runs 20 or so miles per session.

When you have allergies, even much shorter exercise bouts outdoors can be challenging. Experts chime in on the most common exercise allergy mistakes and offer tips to keep in mind before heading outdoors to exercise.

1. Not Knowing Your Pollens

What triggers your allergies? "It's important to know what you're allergic to," says Michael Blaiss, MD, a past president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI) and a practicing allergist in Memphis, Tenn.

"There [are] different readings for different types of pollens," Blaiss says. "Tree pollen levels above 50 is high, for example, while one to 10 is considered low." Check a web site such as that of the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology,  which tracks pollen counts for trees, mold, weeds, and grass across the U.S.

2. Going Outdoors at the Wrong Time of Day

The pollen count is highest between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. and again at dusk, so "plan your workouts for other times of the day when pollen levels are lower," Blaiss says.

If you go out during high-pollen times, wear a face mask designed to filter out pollens, says Murray Grossan, MD, an ear, nose, and throat physician and author of Free Yourself from Sinus and Allergy Problems-- Permanently. "As soon as you arrive home, rinse out your nose with saline to remove pollen still in your nose," Grossan says. "Two anti-allergy nasal sprays that enable you to exercise with high pollen levels include Astelin and Pantanase. Ask your allergist."

3. Not Considering the Weather

Avoid outdoor exercise on dry, warm, windy days, which bring the highest pollen levels. "The wind blows pollen around for miles and miles," Blaiss says.

Many pollens cause eye problems, including allergic conjunctivitis, a noncontagious form of "pink eye," Blaiss says.

High humidity can cause problems, as well. "The humidity itself isn't bad, but if the air feels heavy, it can make breathing feel difficult," Blaiss says. "Plus, the humidity contributes to mold growth, which can trigger symptoms in people with mold allergies."

On the other hand, a rain shower may help. "Rain clears the air, making it a good time to go outdoors if you have allergies," Blaiss says.

4. Choosing the Wrong Activity

Start-and-stop activities such as tennis are more likely to trigger asthma symptoms in susceptible people than continuous activities like running, says Marjorie L. Slankard, MD, clinical professor of medicine at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons.

"Swimming is usually excellent for building up lung capacity and biking is also good," Slankard says. However, chlorine from indoor pools can be irritating to some people, so use caution and leave the area if you have trouble breathing.

"Running in cold weather may also trigger symptoms," Blaiss says. Problems of that type usually result from exercise-induced bronchospasm (a sudden constriction of airway passages in the lungs) however, which is not a true allergy, Blaiss says. "With proper treatment, you should be able to do any sport or activity without a problem. If not, you may need a reevaluation of your treatment plan."

5. Staying Outside Too Long

If, despite being on preventive medications, you feel fatigued after exercising outdoors (from exposure to pollen) or if it results in unacceptable symptoms, you may want to stay indoors. 

"If you experience swelling around the eyes, hives, or prolonged nasal or eye symptoms, stay indoors and exercise with the windows closed and the air conditioner on," Slankard says.

6. Waiting Too Long Before Taking Medications

Blaiss suggests that you start taking allergy medications weeks prior to the season. "Don't wait until you have symptoms. If you know you have spring allergies, take an over-the-counter medication starting around Valentine's Day and through the summer," he says.

Take medications that have worked for you in the past just prior to the season. Pay attention to the weather, particularly when winter weather turns warm and pollens and molds release into the air, the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology recommends.

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