Debra Messing is famous for playing many roles — Grace Adler on Will & Grace, Global Health Ambassador for Population Services International (PSI), proud mom — but there's one role she's played her entire life that not many people know about: severe allergy sufferer.
"I grew up in Rhode Island, basically in the woods, surrounded by grass, flowers, pollen, and mold, and I was just sick all of the time," says the star of NBC's The Mysteries of Laura. "Back then, there wasn't a serious discussion about allergies, so my pediatrician kept saying, 'Oh, you have strep throat, or you have bronchitis, or you have tonsillitis.' I was on antibiotics all the time."
She didn't get a proper diagnosis until the early 1990s when she fell ill during her time as a graduate student at New York University and her doctor suggested she meet with an allergy specialist.
"I did all of the shot testing and the doctor turned to me and said, 'You are the most allergic patient I've had in 14 years!'" Messing remembers. "And I said, 'Wow, that's not a prize that I really want to be winning.' At least I had an answer for why I had these extreme symptoms — the sneezing, my eyes running, my nose itching, my face swelled and red, and sounding like Kermit the Frog."
And thus began Messing's journey of finding her personal path to wellness. While she was prescribed various allergy medications and tried numerous over-the-counter remedies, she still had symptoms, and recalls a particularly upsetting experience from about 12 years ago.
"I did the movie The Wedding Date in the English countryside with all kinds of flowers, and I had an allergy attack," she says. "My throat closed, I turned red, and we had to shut down production for a couple of hours. Not only does it inconvenience people and cost a lot of money, but it's the kind of attention I don't want because it's embarrassing."
Here, Messing shares four tips on how she survives allergy season:
1. Find the Right Treatment for You Through Trial and Error
Since being diagnosed in her twenties, Messing has tried "anything that came out on the market," but most have produced mixed results. "Some remedies that worked put me to sleep or made me super-speedy where I just didn't feel like myself." It wasn't until seven years ago when she came across Zyrtec, which she calls her "game changer."
"All of a sudden, I found the thing that worked for me," she says. "I'm heading down to North Carolina to do the remake of Dirty Dancing. There's going to be beautiful grass and flowers everywhere. Normally I would be a little panicky, but I'm not worried at all now. It really has lifted a huge weight off my shoulders."
2. Keep Things Simple – And Clean
Also allergic to dust and mold, Messing uses only sanitized items on her sensitive skin. "I stay away from any products, including skin care, that have fragrance," she says. "I am vigilant about throwing out makeup on time, like old mascaras. I also make sure that my makeup brushes and sponges are really, really clean."
3. Manage Your Stress
As if they didn't have enough to worry about, allergy sufferers may experience flare-ups due to perceived stress, according to a 2014 study published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. It's a cruel cycle, Messing points out.
"[An allergy attack] was stress-inducing because I never knew when it would happen — it was always hit or miss," Messing says. "I have a son and of course he likes to play outside, so we would go to the park and I'd have an allergy attack. So I'd have to plan something, like, 'Okay, I think I can play with him for about an hour, but that's probably the max.' It was just way too much time thinking about it."
To better manage stress, the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology recommends meditating, practicing deep breathing exercises, reducing common stressors, and scheduling more fun time.
4. Be Prepared
Messing doesn't leave home without allergy relief meds and a small bottle of saline eye drops in her bag. "If there's pollen in the air, all you need is to wash your eyes out with a little saline and it's fine," she says. "Now I can be the employee I always wanted to be and the mom I want to be."