Why Your Allergies are Getting Worse

New science reveals surprising causes.

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You know it the momentyour symptoms kick in—the ever-runny nose and watery eyes, the fogginess, the fatigue. And these days they're getting even more severe. Oh, and they're lasting longer, too. Or maybe you've never dealt with these problems in the past, but now here you are clutching a handful of tissues for dear life. Welcome to allergies in the modern world, where warmer weather, germ-free environments, and other factors are triggering extra-acute reactions that leave you suffering.

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Today, about one in five people in the U.S. have allergies, and that number's climbing: Rates of sensitivity to two top allergens, ragweed and mold, have seen double-digit spikes. "Patients are coming to me with hay fever when they thought they'd outgrown symptoms years ago, or they never even had symptoms until recently," says David Rakel, M.D., director of the Integrative Medicine Program at the University of Wisconsin. And sure, some of that is due to increased awareness. But the real uptick in seasonal misery comes down to basic math: There are more irritants pummeling everyone these days. So, does that leave you doomed to feeling miserable for the next few months? Not with the news and what-to-dos you'll find here.

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Why Are Your Allergies Getting Worse?

It helps to think of it this way: Imagine that your body is a bucket, says James Sublett, M.D., president-elect of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. "You may have a slight reaction to your cat, for example, which doesn't cause major symptoms and only fills your bucket partway. But toss in other allergens that you're regularly exposed to in high doses now—due to factors like atmospheric fluctuations and modern products—and as they add up, your bucket becomes full, even to the point of overflowing. That's when you start to run into serious problems."

It's not all bad news. At the same time that we're being assaulted by irritants, experts are hard at work researching new, easier ways to treat your worst symptoms, with fewer side effects. In this report, you'll learn the surprising factors that have been making you feel so lousy lately. 

1. Climate Change

As the world warms up, extra carbon dioxide gets released into the atmosphere. "The more CO2 there is, the more ragweed and possibly other plants grow, resulting in a pollen vortex," explains allergist Richard Weber, M.D., a professor of medicine at National Jewish Health in Denver. A boost in carbon dioxide also means that the growing season for ragweed, the number one cause of fall allergies, is about a month longer than it was just a few years ago.

Here's another problem you can chalk up to the hotter, more humid weather: It's hog heaven for mold. (All that extra CO2 may encourage fungus to produce more allergenic protein, according to an Israeli study.)

In the end, that means you're being relentlessly bombarded by higher quantities of allergens on a daily basis—a losing battle for your body. "The more you're exposed to high levels of an allergen such as pollen, the more likely you are to have an increased sensitization to it," Weber says. "That explains why some of us are now developing hay fever for the first time ever in our late thirties and even our forties."

How to Know When the Air is Clear: Debating whether to take that walk in the park or not? Check your phone. There are some great apps from weather.com and pollen.com that inform you about things like the current, and even the forecasted, pollen counts. And some newer cars have technology that connects with the Allergy Alert smartphone app from pollen.com. This means you can hear about specific allergen conditions wherever you happen to be (via voice commands and/or info shown on the dashboard's display).

2. Being Squeaky-Clean

All the new antibacterial household cleansers and hand soaps hitting the market aren't doing you any favors. Your immune system is designed to fend off the germs that cause disease. When it doesn't have anything real to battle (because the cleansers have done away with so many germs), it goes looking for a fight, picking on any harmless foreign substance—like pet dander or ragweed—and treating it as the enemy, thus setting off allergic symptoms. Another clean-living backfire: the advent of modern airtight doors and windows. Yes, they keep dirt, pollen, and ragweed out, but they also happen to trap things like dust mites, mold, and pet dander in—with you.

Pinpoint Your Triggers: The best way to avoid allergy misery is to stay away from whatever is causing your symptoms. Hard to do when you have no clue what the offender is. For instance, you may assume that since ragweed messes with so many people, it must be your kryptonite, too. So you do the smart thing and stay indoors when the levels are high outside. But indoors is where dust is hiding, under your bed and on your cabinets, and it could turn out that dust, not ragweed, is really what's hurting you. Now you're trapped inside with your worst enemy.

As you can see, it pays to see an allergist for a scratch test, which involves putting different allergens on your skin and checking which ones cause a reaction (most insurance carriers cover the test). If the results aren't clear, you may need a more sensitive intradermal test, in which the allergist injects the substance under your skin with a very fine needle. This more sensitive test rarely poses any additional risk and should not cause any more of an intense reaction.

3. The Common Cold

The more colds and viral infections you catch, the more you boost your odds of developing allergies. Here's why: When you pick up a virus, your immune system goes on a combat mission, attacking any substance in its path without bothering to find out if it's friend or foe, explains allergist William Calhoun, M.D., of the University of Texas Medical Branch. "So something you may normally tolerate, like cat dander, can suddenly be treated as a threat." And these days, the way we handle each other's phones and tablets (like when you look at a friend's vacation pictures) means we're passing along germs more often and upping the chances of getting a nasty cold. Our increasingly urbanized environment (we're squeezed together at the office and packed like sardines on public transportation) makes things even worse.

This story originally appeared in the August/September 2014 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.

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