How to manage your allergies at work: A survival guide

Allergies are a blessing and a curse.

Haaa, yeah, no … they’re just a curse. And unfortunately, I think most of you can relate. Allergies are annoying. If you’ve ever spontaneously hived out on your face, had to leave a social function early because your throat randomly started closing up, or called in sick to work because you can’t stop sneezing and your eyes are so puffy you can barely see‚ you get it.

I’ve lived with allergies all my life. As my allergist told me a few months ago, I’m “an allergist’s poster child” — because I’ve got it allllll going on. Allergies, asthma, and eczema. BOOM.

When you’re a little kid, your parents fill out a form for your teacher that says, “Hey, my kid is allergic to peanuts, help me keep them alive please” and suddenly, you’re in a peanut-free environment. I didn’t like all the hullabaloo when I was younger — I would honestly rather hive out in silence than ever affect my fellow classmates — but as an adult, in an office, sometimes I find myself desperately wishing I could tape up signs that say, “Peanut-Free Zone.”

Needless to say, I’ve got a lot of advice for how to work (and live) as an allergy person. I enlisted my fellow allergista (cringe — we know) in the office, Aliya, to share tips for how we deal. This is how to survive in the workplace, for all of you with allergies.

1. Pay attention to your triggers

From Jacq —

One of the best things you can do is pay attention not only to when you’re having an allergic reaction, but to what you were doing before it happened—what caused it? (Because you want to avoid these situations as much as possible in the future.) Sometimes, you can’t win — especially in the height of spring, or what I like to call “pollen season”. If the air you’re breathing is what’s making you miserable, you just have to do your best. Not much you can control there.

But there are other things you can control.

We have a shared kitchen in our coworking space, and we often prep our lunches up there. At peak lunch hours, the dishwasher is usually full, meaning I have to hand-wash any dishes I have. After (joyfully) cleaning my silverware one day, I walked away from the sink and spontaneously hived out all over my hands and wrists. My best guess is that the sponge had some sort of nut butter or other allergens on it. Can this be avoided? Probably not entirely — but now, I consciously check the sponge before washing my dishes, or I wait until I can put them in the dishwasher.

Tracking down the possible triggers of your allergies can be annoying, but if it saves you even one allergic reaction in the future, I think it’s well worth it.

2. Don’t suffer in silence

From Aliya —

On my first day at Career Contessa, my boss was kind enough to organize a welcome pizza lunch. Which is great … if you have the ability to consume gluten, tomato, and dairy. I, unfortunately, do not possess that ability.

At the risk of sounding like an eye-roll inducing fad dieter (being in LA didn’t help), I decided the best thing to do was to let everyone know that despite how much I wanted to participate in this pizza party, I could consume ~0 pizza. I expressed how thankful I was and mentally-prepped myself to answer obligatory “What will happen to you if you eat that?” questions. Instead, I learned that several of our team members have a multitude of their own dietary constrictions. Turns out, I wasn’t the only weird one!

This may seem like a very trivial example, but the moral of the story is: you are not alone and you don’t have to suffer in silence.

You certainly don’t need to overshare either, but you’d be surprised at how many people have similar problems. Honest communication is key, especially when you have a bad allergy attack. Communicate with your boss if you need to work from home or have to leave early to go to your doctor appointment. Prioritize your health and well-being, because jobs are interchangeable—you are not.

3. Water is your BFF

From Jacq —

Water is truly the key to life. Feeling a headache coming on? Drink water. Throat starting to itch? Chug water. Is your skin becoming inflamed and turning a bright, burning shade of red? Rinse it off ASAP with — you guessed it — water!

Seriously, though — water is a natural antihistamine. When you’re not drinking enough, you’re dehydrated (duh), which actually produces histamines in the body — cueing an allergy response. Water also decreases the amount of mucus produced in your body. If you stay hydrated, you just might be able to actually breathe through your nose properly. What a dream!

Pro Tip (From Aliya): Get a reusable straw for your (reusable) water cup. Not only is it better for the environment, it makes drinking more fun, which means more water intake and a healthier you!

4. Go see a doctor

From Aliya —

We probably (definitely) should have mentioned this first, but a key aspect of managing your allergies is to have an understanding of what you’re actually allergic to. Allergies are ridiculously frustrating. Sometimes you may have to go to several doctors to figure out what you’re allergic to, only to find out that what you’re allergic to is, essentially, the air you breathe.

Over the years, I’ve seen several dermatologists and allergists. Many times, I was told that my eczema was “just something you’re going to have to live with for the rest of your life.” Most recently, I’ve turned to acupuncture and eastern medicine. My new doctor may poke needles in me as I lay in a dark room, softly listening to Korean ballads, but this is the first time I’ve seen results.

The point is, find what (or who) works for you. You don’t have to suffer perpetually without a solution.

5. Have your allergy pack handy

You never really know when allergies are going to strike. So it’s best to be prepared. Maybe even over-prepared. While traveling to an event together, Aliya and I discovered that we both carry “allergy packs” with us to make sure that we’re ready to respond if we start feeling funky.

We’d like to note that we aren’t trying to promote taking medicine, or certain brands of products in particular. We’re simply sharing what we do, in hopes that it may help someone out there who needs some recommendations. We’re not sponsored, and we’re not being paid to mention any of these brands. Just offering advice from one allergy sufferer (or two) to another.

Just choose a cute little bag, and put all of your allergy-attack essentials in there. Carry whatever helps you feel better when you start having symptoms. Here’s what we include in our packs.

Aliya’s Allergy Pack Essentials:

  • Zyrtec: Helps keep the itching down and doesn’t make you drowsy.
  • Vaseline: Cute lil mini vaseline to keep your lips moisturized.
  • Moisturizer: I keep a travel size amount of Eucerin moisturizer on me at all times. It’s great for sensitive skin because it doesn’t have any fragrances. When my skin is feeling extra inflamed, I add a few drops of tea tree oil to give it an extra minty/cooling effect.
  • Eye drops: My optometrist recommended Opcon so I’ve been using that and it’s done the trick.

Jacq’s Allergy Pack Essentials:

  • Benadryl/Claritin/Zyrtec: Aliya obviously has a trusted brand, but I like to have different medicines ready to go—depending on what my symptoms are. Zyrtec is for the stereotypical itchy eyes, runny nose situation. Benadryl works best when my skin is freaking out. And Claritin is if I’m feeling the cloudy-head overall allergies-are-killing-me-today day.
  • Hair ties: When I’m having an allergy day, I’m already slightly annoyed. And hair in my face—where I’m already feeling puffy and sensitive—is an absolute no.
  • Eye Drops: My allergist recommended Zaditor to me, and I’ve found it really helps relieve the itchiness. It doesn’t help with the redness, so I usually carry redness reliever eye drops too.
  • Inhaler: Just in case my lungs start to get wheezy.
  • Epi Pen: Just in case I eat peanuts and start going into anaphylaxis.

6. Pack your sunnies

From Aliya —

Not only will sunglasses make you look cool and aloof, they are also great at covering up the fact that your eyes looked like they were stung by two bees. Wearing sunglasses is also a great way to protect your eyes from allergens, wind, and sun, all of which can worsen your condition. Did I mention they look cool as all heck?

7. Bring your own snacks

From Jacq

No one likes feeling left out. I learned early on (think: growing up with three siblings who could eat whatever they wanted, and didn’t really care if you couldn’t eat it too) that it doesn’t matter what everyone else is eating if you have your own treats to look forward to. I carry chocolate with me pretty much all the time. I also pack my lunches most days, and bring foods I know I like to eat. That way, when the office has a “Bagel Thursday” and I’m stuck eating my oatmeal, I feel better when I think of the delicious food I get to eat later.

I also recommend bringing in your snacks to share with the office—which I understand is easier when you have a five-person team. But if you can get everyone else to enjoy the food you can eat, it’s easier to find “group” snacks and treats, when the time comes. Remember that chocolate I mentioned? I shared with the office one day, and everyone fell in love with it—it’s sitting in our fridge because we’re all obsessed. Now, when everyone else feels like indulging, I can too.

Pro Tip (From Aliya): Peeping in here to say that I second this advice. A particular brand of Aliya-friendly plantain chips have garnered a lot of love in our office since I first introduced them back in early 2018.

8. Find an allergy ally

From Jacq —

Odds are, you’re not the only one in the office that’s suffering. Other people in your office space will likely have diet restrictions, pollen intolerances, or skin issues of their own. Because you’re open and honest about your own experiences (see tip number two), you’ll be a safe place for your coworkers to talk about their own. Heck, I know more about my own allergies just from talking with Aliya about hers.

This article first appeared on Career Contessa.