Matt Fouse had been searching for a remedy for his seasonal allergies most of his life. He'd tried medications, but they hadn't worked and left him feeling like a zombie, he said. He tried nasal irrigation, balloon sinuplasty — a surgery intended to expand his sinuses — and even had his nose broken and reset in hopes of improving his symptoms.
"I pretty much tried everything. I went to an allergist. I went to acupuncture, which did help, but not like 100 percent," said Fouse, 31.
Nothing had lasting results until Fouse stumbled into Zensations, an herbal remedy shop in Hampden, around three years ago. There, he found an unlikely solution to his problem — a concoction he said tastes like an awful combination of vodka and weeds — and he's never looked back.
Like Fouse, some people suffering from spring allergies turn to alternative treatments, including herbs, acupuncture, salt therapy and even foods containing allergens to complement or wean off pharmaceuticals altogether. These users swear they find relief, although research on these therapies is limited and some doctors recommend against them.
Jennifer Ehrhardt, the owner of Zensations, created the herbal remedy that Fouse has been taking for the past three years. The tincture, a solvent made of dried stinging nettles, peppermint, lemon balm, dandelion leaf and red clover, works every time, Fouse said.
He buys a large bottle every month, placing 10 to 20 drops under his tongue three to four times a day, letting it sit before swallowing.
"If I wasn't on it right now ... I would be miserable," he said. Tree and grass pollen concentrations hit the 99th percentile last week, according to Drs. Golden & Matz LLC, a local allergist practice.
Ehrhardt, who started studying herbs more than 20 years ago, sources recipes for a range of ailments from library books, midwives, mothers and her travels. The majority of her customers are looking for an herb to alleviate their allergy symptoms, she said.
"They don't want to be on [antihistamines] and all these prescribed medications," Ehrhardt said. "They're all looking for alternatives."
But Dr. Alvin Sanico, the director of the Asthma Sinus Allergy Program at Greater Baltimore Medical Center and an assistant professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University, said herbal remedies and other alternative allergy treatments aren't reliable. Aside from the neti pot, a nasal irrigation tool that has been used for centuries, they do not have scientific evidence demonstrating their effectiveness and are not recommended, he said. They can seem harmless but can lead to health problems if not monitored.
"There's a lot of misconceptions out there," Sanico said. "As far as these alternatives or complementary approaches ... it's not unusual for patients to ask. I always advise them to have an open but critical mind. Anything and everything that I would recommend should have a scientific basis."
Dr. Kathryn A. Boling, a doctor of family medicine at Mercy Medical Center, agreed, noting that she would only approve of the use of a natural remedy if it posed no risk to her patient.
"You have to be just as careful taking natural things as you do taking drugs, because … many drugs came from working with plants," Boling said, pointing out that some natural remedies can affect blood pressure and the effectiveness of other medications.
But Emily Telfair, a naturopathic doctor in Baltimore, said that turning to nature for a remedy is a good place to start when searching for a treatment.
Telfair prescribes therapies derived from nature, including natural supplements, antihistamines, teas and diet changes to treat environmental allergies.
Nettles, quercetin (a natural antihistamine available in supplement form) and other flavonols (compounds often found in onions and apples) can serve as natural remedies, she said, while eliminating dairy from the diet can reduce the production of phlegm during high-symptom periods.
"[Naturopathic treatment is] the least invasive method possible," Telfair said. "If [patients] don't respond, you can go to another higher level"
Sheri Barnes, an acupuncturist and owner of The Center Annapolis, said many clients seek acupuncture to clear up stuffy noses and headaches. After identifying irritated areas, the acupuncturist can place needles in other parts of the body, with the intention of relaxing inflamed areas.
"It's the idea of creating balance and flow," said Barnes, who is also an occupational therapist. "And making sure that one part of the body doesn't release or stop the flow, and sometimes that's the problem."
For some, acupuncture can be used as a complementary method to medication with the approval of a doctor, Barnes said. For others, it can be their sole treatment.
Restaurant owner Kresslin Clark, 44, of Gwynn Oak hasn't used a nasal spray for his pollen or pet allergies for over a year since he started acupuncture sessions with Barnes.
"I'm a skeptic with everything," he said, but after one session, Clark said he felt as if a big cloud dissipated. "It was like the needle was a spear hitting a balloon."
Clark, who gets acupuncture about twice a week, said he still uses a neti pot three to four times a year to flush his nasal passages, but he swears by acupuncture, he said.
"You would have to experience to believe it," he said.
But according to Sanico, acupuncture is not a cure-all. It's best for conditions like chronic pain, but there is no scientific proof that it is helpful for asthma or allergies, he said.
Results from a 2013 study published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine showed that acupuncture improved allergy symptoms for some patients, but the study also suggested a placebo effect. Of 422 patients taking medication for allergies, those treated with acupuncture showed improvement in symptoms compared with those treated with a "sham" form of acupuncture or medication alone. But the improvements were modest and may have been influenced by patients' pre-existing ideas about acupuncture, researchers noted.
Norma Hershey, 64, of Ellicott City, who suffers from chronic sinusitis and seasonal allergies, was prescribed a steroid nasal spray and antihistamines — none of which she liked. After months of complaining about her allergies, she decided to try to find relief in the "salt cave" at The Salt Sanctuary in Elkridge.
"I am one of those people who's open to trying new things but usually with a healthy dose of skepticism," she said.
Primarily used to alleviate symptoms of respiratory illness, asthma, allergies and sinus problems, salt therapy involves releasing a salt aerosol in the air of a room with walls and floors lined in salt to draw excess moisture from sinus and bronchial tissue. Breathing in the salt allows the sinuses to drain, taking environmental irritants such as pollen and dust along with the mucus, according to the owner Ellen Flaherty.
Hershey committed to one month of sessions, going two to three times a week, and in her second month, Hershey said she has ditched her medicine.
"I do sneeze from time to time, and I still have a little drainage," she said. "But this is a really bad allergy season, and I'm kind of amazed at it. I still don't understand it, but it seems to be working for me."
Many people come to the salt cave weeks, sometimes months, before allergy season begins to help prevent symptoms, Flaherty said. She suggests about three sessions a week for about a month to experience relief that she said can last for the whole year. Sessions in the salt cave can serve as complementary allergy therapy along with medication, and in some cases, allow people to reduce or eliminate medications with approval of a doctor, she said.
Sanico, however, cautions that exposure to high concentrations of salt could cause additional irritation. He also calls homeopathy, an alternative treatment that introduces trace amounts of allergens into the system, inconsequential.
Still, some advocate adding what ails you into your diet.
Jerry Fischer, a retired bee inspector and owner of Fischer Apiary, said eating raw honey made from nectar sourced from Maryland can be a way for people with allergies to desensitize to pollen.
Though many are trying alternative treatments, by and large, people with allergies are still taking pharmaceutical drugs.
"Pretty much the trend in seasonal allergies in Baltimore is to take regular medicine," Boling said.
Nasal sprays are recommended for preventing symptoms, and antihistamines can provide immediate but temporary relief. Allergy shots and "avoiding what you're allergic to" are also effective, Sanico said.
But no matter what you do, Boling said, allergies are bound to stick around.
"Anything you do, even when you take allergy medication, is temporary," she said. "They only last as long as you're consistently doing it."