Health officials say an estimated 35 million Americans suffer from "hay fever," officially called "seasonal allergic rhinitis" and, this spring, that sneezy-itchy-congested upper respiratory reaction to pollen is really turning on the tears.

It's a good time to make your home a haven from pollen and other airborne allergens so you can hole up there until the pollen storm blows over.

An unusually wet spring in many regions of the nation is spawning heavy plant growth and with certain plants come pollen -- microscopic, egg-shaped male cells of flowering plants necessary for plant fertilization.

When humans breathe in the yellow powdery substance, however, it often triggers immune system responses -- watery, itchy eyes, sneezing, congestion and other symptoms including asthma a more serious respiratory condition.

If you have persistent or severe symptoms, you should see an allergist for a complete history, tests and management program. You may need to undertake immunotherapy, which is successful in up to 90 percent of patients with seasonal allergic rhinitis and up to 80 percent for those with perennial (year round) allergic rhinitis, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, Immunology.

But the key element in any management program is to avoid allergens that trigger reactions.

At home you can take numerous steps to clear the air of pollens and other allergens, according to the academy, as well as the publication, "Airborne Allergens: Something In The Air", by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the American Lung Association's allergy section.

Here are some of the steps you can take to stop the onslaught of pollen.

Adding a whole-house air filtration and ventilation system is like giving your home a set of lungs. The system provides your home with a continuous supply of fresh, filtered air. Central systems that include humidity adjustment and central vacuuming systems can also be wise choices.

Smaller portable air cleaners equipped with HEPA filters (as well as air conditioners and vacuum cleaners) can provide some relief, but some products perform better than others, according to "Clearing the Air: A Guide To Reducing Indoor Air Pollution" a report by Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine.

Likewise, frequent vacuuming and damp dusting and mopping are common sense keys to reducing pollen levels in the home. Keep the windows open to allow air to circulate when pollen counts are not high, but when levels rise, use an air conditioner. Both measures will help push humidity levels down to the desired 50 percent-or-lower level.

Also change or clean heating and air conditioning filters often.

  • Limit pollen transport. Keep pets bathed and outside whenever possible to reduce shedding in your home. Pet fur is also a pollen magnet. Wash all bedding weekly in hot water. Shower and wash your hair to prevent transferring pollen to your pillow and other surfaces that tough your face. Encase allergy and asthma sufferers' mattresses and pillows in dust proof or allergen impermeable covers and replace wool or feather-stuffed bedding materials with synthetic materials. Hard surface floors like wood, tile or linoleum are easier to clean than carpeted floors.
  • Stay home. Whenever possible, stay indoors when pollen counts are highest -- usually mornings before 10 a.m. and on dry, windy days. It's best to exercise outdoors in the early evening. Wear sunglasses to help block pollen from your eyes.
  • Reduce the number of male plants in your garden. That's right. Many choose male plants because they aren't, well, as high-maintenance as female plants. Female plants litter the ground with their seeds, fruits, pods and other reproductive items. Male plants, on the other hand, aren't as messy, but they are the pollinators.

"The fact that our urban forests have been propagated with male-clones is a crime on two counts: male plants are the pollen-producing offenders, and without female plants to absorb pollen, allergenic pollen counts are on the rise nationwide," says horticulturist Thomas Leo Ogren, author of "Safe Sex In The Garden" (Ten Speed Press, $14.95).

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