Are you sneezing nonstop, have nasal congestion, or perhaps a runny nose? Before you write off these symptoms as signs you’re coming down with a cold, it’s possible you’re experiencing seasonal allergies. Unlike a cold that’s caused by a virus, seasonal allergies (also called ‘hay fever’) are the result of an allergic reaction to outdoor allergens, like plant pollen.

Seasonal allergies affect approximately 35 million Americans, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA). So the abundance of over-the-counter and prescription allergy medications available, usually in the form of oral tablets, nasal sprays, eye drops, and other liquid formations, is no surprise. The active ingredient in many of these medications is an antihistamine, which is meant to reduce irritation, congestion, and other types of inflammation. While most allergy medicines work quickly, some have been noted for their unpleasant side effects such as drowsiness, dizziness, nausea, and dehydration.

Fortunately, relief doesn’t have to come in the form of a pill or liquid medication. If you want to nip your allergy symptoms in the bud, some research and experts say, instead of jumping the gun and making a trip to your nearest pharmacy, look no further than your local grocery store or farmer’s market for long-term relief.

Roni Enten, an individualized biomedical nutritionist, believes consuming a nutrient-rich diet not only has the ability to protect the immune system from inflammation, but it can also prevent the onset of seasonal allergy symptoms. “When you’re in the throes of an immune response, most people want to have an immediate solution,” says Enten. “I always try to tell people, if they know in advance that they suffer from seasonal allergies every year, then it’s great to start addressing that with diet and supplements a couple of months before to get optimal results.”

Enten, a member of the National Association of Nutrition Professionals (NANP), says foods that reduce inflammation are the ideal choice in the fight against allergy symptoms. “If we are eating a balanced diet that’s overall anti-inflammatory, our bodies will be less likely to react in the first place.”

An anti-inflammatory diet, developed and made popular by Dr. Andrew Weil, is a diet that encourages eating fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, along with healthy fats, fish and seafood, protein, herbs and spices, along with a healthy dose of daily supplements. Weil’s famous diet is considered by many within the health and medical communities as an alternative and holistic approach to overall wellness. The diet champions the notion that certain foods can trigger or prevent inflammation. Health experts agree the Mediterranean diet is a good representation of an overall anti-inflammatory diet.

According to Enten, one of the benefits of consuming a diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables is the array of nutrients they contain known as phytonutrients, the natural chemicals found in plants that protect against bacteria, viruses, and fungi. It’s these phytonutrients that are also responsible for giving greens their bright, vibrant colors.

Among these nutrients is quercetin. Some studies suggest it may be more effective than some over-the-counter medications as it acts as a natural antihistamine, including a Japanese study that discovered quercetin’s ability to reduce itching and irritation of the eyes in people sensitive to pollen. Foods high in quercetin, doubly effective as they serve as antioxidants, include apples, berries, onions, garlic, capers, and black tea. An added bonus: when the enzyme bromelain (usually found in pineapples) is paired with quercetin, it assists with the absorption of quercetin into the bloodstream. Bromelain is also known for its anti-inflammatory properties and may alleviate congestion, improve breathing, and suppress coughing.

Enten recommends getting at least nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day. “These foods are really aiming to treat the underlying problem, whereas taking an antihistamine is treating the histamine response when it occurs, but not necessarily the underlying problem,” adds Enten.

Another phytonutrient with antioxidant qualities are carotenoids. A 2006 study conducted in Germany found that a diet high in carotenoids may also have a protective effect on seasonal allergy symptoms. Carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, dark leafy greens like kale and spinach, and tomatoes are all sources of cartenoids.

In addition to getting a wide serving of fruits and vegetables, Enten advises eating healthy omega-3s, often found in coldwater fish like salmon and tuna. Omega-3s, an essential fatty acid and staple in the Weil diet, have been proven to curb inflammation. In a 2007 study, researchers from the Netherlands and Scotland saw that women who consumed fish during pregnancy decreased the risk of passing allergic diseases onto their children.

Two to six servings of fish and other seafood are recommended on the anti-inflammatory diet, but if you’re not a seafood lover, there are other ways of getting your omega-3s. Some other ideal sources of this essential fatty acid include walnuts, broccoli, leafy greens, along with flaxseed.

Yet another anti-inflammatory food that helps keep the immune system strong and seasonal allergies at bay are those containing probiotics, or “good” bacteria, typically found in cultured or fermented yogurt, pickles, sauerkraut, and miso soup. These probiotic foods not only replenish the “friendly” bacteria in the gut, which aid in metabolizing nutrients, they also shield the immune system from inflammation; approximately 70 percent of the cells in our immune system are made up in the wall of the gut.

It may seem like a small coincidence, but have you ever noticed that feeling like you can breathe easier right after eating a spicy meal? That’s because spices like turmeric and ginger are anti-inflammatory. The active compound in turmeric is curcumin, which assists with reducing swelling inside the sinus tissues. Enten encourages using an unlimited amount of spices before and during allergy season.

For long-time allergy sufferer Margi McDaniel, spices are an essential part of her cooking as she’s found they help curb her seasonal allergies to pine tree pollen. In addition to incorporating many spices, McDaniel drinks plenty of water, oftentimes adding citrus, like lemon, for a dose of vitamin C.

Whether it’s consuming more water, hot teas, or soups, Dr. Mitchell Grayson, an allergy and immunology specialist and associate professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin, says staying well-hydrated is one of the best things you can do because liquids open up blocked throat and nasal passages. “The more hydrated you are the more easily [mucus] will flow, and the more likely you won’t get congested in the back of your throat,” informs Dr. Grayson.

McDaniel, a nutritionist, is not the only one in her family who has seasonal allergies. Both her husband and two children are also allergic to pollen from pine trees. Though McDaniel admits to occasionally using traditional antihistamines to treat her itchy, watery eyes, sneezing, and fatigue, she says she would rather use food over pills. McDaniel adds that she often feels tired and dehydrated after taking allergy medicine.

Her husband, on the other hand, doesn’t use allergy medications, as a result of a dietary regime that consists of mostly anti-inflammatory foods, a lot of water, and supplements. “My husband was on Claritin forever,” says McDaniel. “From his 20s until he was 45, he always took allergy medicine. He just doesn’t anymore. He doesn’t even think about it.”

No matter what type of seasonal allergy you suffer from, there are other vitamins and minerals that should not be overlooked. Vitamin C, for example, is one well-known nutrient that acts as a natural antioxidant. The immune booster, good for overall health, eases nasal congestion and can stop a runny nose. Fruits and vegetables that are high in vitamin C include kiwis, oranges, broccoli, and cauliflower. Zinc is another essential mineral that guards against inflammation. Oysters, lentils, pumpkin and sesame seeds, cashews, peanuts, and quinoa all contain zinc.

“To eat or not to eat?” If you suffer from seasonal allergies that’s what you need to ask yourself, as certain foods could make your allergies even worse. Furthermore, it may be even more essential to consider the kind of pollen you’re sensitive to in order to avoid cross-activity. A cross-reaction occurs when the body confuses protein compounds found in certain fruits and vegetables as allergens, similar to those in pollen. This cross-activity is called oral allergy syndrome (OAS).

According to allergy experts, OAS can happen at any time of the year. If you have tree allergies during the spring, you may experience an allergic response to fruits including peaches, apples, pears, kiwis, plums, or vegetables such as fennel, parsley, and celery, and the spice coriander. Likewise, people who suffer from grass allergies might have a negative reaction to celery, tomatoes, melons, oranges, and peaches. If you have ragweed allergies you may not want to eat bananas, avocados, kiwis, or papaya. Can’t fathom the thought of avoiding these foods? Try baking or microwaving food prior to eating; this will limit the possibility of a cross-reaction. Or try peeling the skin off of fruit or eating canned varieties.

Do you have food sensitivities or allergies to foods containing dairy or soy? Enten recommends eliminating those from your diet as they could exasperate allergy symptoms. In addition to dairy and soy, she’s provided a list of other foods that can actually increase inflammation and should be eaten in moderation:

  • Trans Fats
  • Sugar
  • White Bread/Pasta
  • Omega-6 Fatty Acids (vegetable and corn oil, soybean oil, sunflower oil, nuts, and seeds)
  • Milk
  • Caffeine

Although spring and summer are officially behind us, tree, grass, and weed pollens are still very much present in the air, especially as we move into fall, a peak allergy season for ragweed pollen. Thanks to the effects of climate change, plant pollens are expected to be more potent and allergenic, while warmer temperatures will result in earlier springs causing allergy seasons to last inevitably longer.

Despite this harsh reality, there are a few easy things you can do to reduce exposure, informs Dr. Grayson, a fellow of the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI). “Plants tend to pollinate in the early morning and late afternoon hours, so avoid being outside during that time,” adds Dr. Grayson. “Don’t roll down your windows in your car, and don’t open your windows in your house.”

Limiting contact with pollen and other allergens may pose a challenge, especially if you enjoy spending a lot of time outdoors. Dr. Grayson insists people can decrease exposure by frequently changing out their furnace and air conditioning filters to get rid of outdoor allergens and pollen. “Make sure to change the filters every three months depending on the type of filters you have,” Dr. Grayson recommends. “The main thing is make sure you have a cool filter, so it’s pulling out particles.” If you do get exposed to pollen, Enten recommends washing your hair and clothes or using a neti pot to flush out nasal passages.

Unfortunately, there is no quick fix or one-size-fits-all approach when dealing with seasonal allergies. The good news, however, is that there is short- and long-term relief, whether it’s in the form of traditional antihistamine medicine or Mother Nature. Regardless of how you choose to treat your allergy symptoms, it’s important to keep in mind the type of allergy you suffer from. To ensure you get the proper care you need, make sure to meet with an allergy expert and nutritionist, who can identify your allergies and recommend the ideal treatment.

Aysha Hussain is a New York-based writer and journalist. Aysha was featured in The New York Times’ “We, Myself and I,” and her work has been published in Newsday and Muslim Girl.