Ah, the cottage. All that sunshine and fresh air. And trees, with their pollen. And stinging insects. And—be honest—a little mould in the basement. This stuff can get annoying for any cottager. But for a cottager with allergies, it can ruin precious lakeside time.

And, thanks to climate change, many allergy sufferers are worse off than ever. “Tree pollen season starts later than it used to and can overlap with grass pollen season,” says Anne Ellis, a professor in the department of medicine at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. “So if you’re allergic to both, late spring-early summer is not a fun time for you.” What?! The cottage is supposed to be fun!

But don’t give up hope. If itching, sneezing, and wheezing are killing the good vibes this summer, consider these common allergy culprits—and what you can do about them.

1) Plant pollen

Ragweed is a top offender, particularly in Ontario and Quebec. Other weeds, some pasture grasses (timothy, for example), and plenty of native trees, including maple, willow, ash, pine, oak, and birch can also cause allergic reactions.

Symptoms Hay fever! Sneezing, watery eyes; all of the openings in your face itch.

What to do You can take antihistamines and nasal sprays, of course. But also try to get rid of the offending villain. When it comes to ragweed, “the key is to prevent it from flowering, because the pollen is produced in the flowers,” says Lorraine Johnson, the co-author of A Garden for the Rusty-Patched Bumblebee. Weeding works, but a longer-term solution is to reduce the amount of lawn you have at the cottage, since “ragweed flourishes in response to disturbance, such as lawn mowing,” says Johnson. Better still, replace lawns altogether with native groundcover such as wild strawberry in sunny conditions or woodland strawberry in part-sun or shady conditions. See you in hell, ragweed!

As for allergenic trees, since you can’t just chop them all down, do what you can to minimize symptoms. Avoid hanging clothes outside to dry (they’ll collect pollen), wipe your dog down before they come inside, and shower before you go to bed so you aren’t snoozing with pollen-coated hair all night.

2) Insects

In particular, wasps and hornets.

Symptoms The worst-case scenario is anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction. But insect venom allergy doesn’t always manifest as full-blown anaphylaxis. “Lots of people experience a large, local reaction to a yellowjacket or wasp sting, where the whole extremity can swell,” says Ellis. “It can be really quite uncomfortable.”

What to do If you’ve been given an EpiPen for your insect allergy and you’ve been stung, don’t think twice: use it, then head to the hospital, even if the medication seems to be working. Ask your allergist about immunotherapy, which is highly effective for insect venom allergy. And if you have a known wasp nest, deal with it. An ordinary spray canister of wasp-killer will work if the nest is small (less than the size of a grapefruit), and once sprayed, if it’s up against a solid surface, you can squash it with a 4×4. If it’s a larger, mature nest, you might want to call in the experts.

Cottage Q&A: Is it safe to remove a wasp’s nest without killing the wasps?

3) Mould

Symptoms If you have allergies to pollen or dust mites, you’re more likely to have an allergy to mould, and the typical symptoms are similar: itchy eyes, a runny nose, a tendency towards asthma. “The reaction usually happens quickly with an exposure, within five or 10 minutes,” says Susan Tarlo, a professor in the department of medicine and Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.

What to do An antihistamine will help with mould allergy symptoms, but in the longer-term, you need to get rid of the trigger. Unfortunately, mould allergies are hard to test for. But you really don’t need visible signs—if the cottage smells musty, there’s indoor dampness, and that leads to mould. Check under carpets, near windows, in closet corners, or places that are cluttered for brown, black, or greenish “blooms”—the same type of thing you’d see on old bread or expired yogurt. Clean them with a specialized mould-killing product, and then get rid of the source of dampness, whether it’s from a leak or, say, water coming in through cracks in the foundation. If the problem is extensive, you may need to hire a remediation expert. An antihistamine will help with symptoms as you work to solve the problem. But if you’re having severe, acute breathing problems, quick, to the ER!

Cottage Q&A: Preventing mould growth

4) Sunscreen  

That is, the ultraviolet light-blocking components in sunscreen, including oxybenzone and avobenzone.

Symptoms A red, itchy rash and sometimes swelling and blisters, caused by either a “contact allergy” (the chemical triggers a reaction as soon as it’s on your skin) or a “photoallergy” (the sun interacts with the chemicals and that triggers a reaction).

What to do Wash off the sunscreen and, obviously, don’t use it again. Switch to a zinc-based product. “Zinc is much more inert and rarely causes allergic reactions,” says Ellis. Yes, it can be chalky and thick and not the prettiest thing to slap all over your face. But a rash and blisters are worse, and there are more zinc-based sunscreens to choose from than ever.

The truth behind 10 sunscreen myths

5) Dust mites

Symptoms Watery, itchy eyes, sneezing, runny nose, wheezing

What to do Unfortunately, seasonal cottages are prone to high humidity, and dust mites, which feed on our shed skin cells (ew), love them some humidity. One 2005 study that investigated the seasonal cottage-dust mite connection found that summer cottages were “without exception all heavily infested with threefold or higher concentrations of both house dust and storage mites in comparison with ordinary houses.” So reducing indoor humidity, by, for example, increasing ventilation in the cottage via fans, will make the environment less hospitable for dust mites. Frequent vacuuming and avoiding feather pillows and down comforters can help too, says Tarlo.

6) Animal infestations

At least, the remnants of animal infestations: droppings and fur from rodents, bats, raccoons, or squirrels.

Symptoms If you have an allergy, you’ll experience the same symptoms you might get with other indoor allergens (see mould and dust mites, above). “The protein causing the allergic reaction can be in the urine or from the skin or saliva of the animal, and could cause nasal or respiratory allergic symptoms if it is breathed in,” says Tarlo.

What to do Clean up the mess. An environmentally friendly cleaning product might do the trick, but if you need something stronger, consider peroxide bleach or a specialized cleaner designed to treat dog kennels, cat litter boxes, and chicken coops. Next, evict the critters. If you’ve been reading pretty much any issue of this magazine, you know how difficult that can be. When in doubt, call a pest control or wildlife removal specialist.

This article was originally published in the June/July 2023 issue of Cottage Life.

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