There must have been a time when Steve Kain's nose wasn't stuffed up - but he can't remember it.
The 33-year-old information technology expert from Columbia has had chronic sinus conditions since he was a kid. The sniffles were like a lifestyle, and he gulped Claritin, Sudafed, Theraflu, Benadryl - anything to try to feel better.
But last year, Kain mentioned his sorry sinuses to an acupuncturist. She sent him home with what was to be the prescription he'd been waiting for: Buy a Neti pot.
Though he had to get past the feeling "that I was sticking a little genie lamp into my nose," running the salt water through his nasal passages helped almost immediately.
"I breathe easier," he says.
Hundreds of thousands of people in the United States suffer from allergies. The suffering in Baltimore is expected to start in a few weeks, during the prime of allergy season, which typically runs here from late April though May. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, 90 percent of the sneezing legions would now consider using alternative treatments.
Doctors say more allergy sufferers are looking for relief beyond traditional medicines and taking fresh looks at natural remedies such as the Neti pot, vitamins and herbs.
And physicians say these things work - particularly for people with mild or moderate symptoms.
The Neti pot, which has shot up in popularity since Oprah Winfrey endorsed them on her TV show last year, works by rinsing allergens out of the nose, says Dr. Joyce Frye, an assistant professor of family and community medicine with the University of Maryland School of Medicine's Center for Integrative Medicine.
It's basically a tiny kettle that people fill with salt water, pour into one nostril and wait for it to flow out the other.
Frye says one of her good friends who used to have frequent sinus infections hasn't had a single one since she started using a Neti pot every day.
"I think it will help anyone with allergies that seem to be airborne," she says. "If you're outside with pollen during the day, you'll want to [use the Neti pot] in the evening when you get home."
Dr. Jean Kim, an assistant professor of otolaryngology, allergy and clinical immunology at Johns Hopkins Hospital, says patients have been asking her about the Neti pot since Winfrey mentioned it.
She's a fan of it, and a handful of other natural ways to moisturize dry, raw noses.
One of the first things Kim prescribes to her patients is saline nose spray - which does essentially the same thing as a Neti pot but with an easier, Americanized application.
She also recommends people sleep with humidifiers and take hot showers.
"These things will work with anybody," she says.
While using these techniques to wash out nasal passages and refresh the nose, doctors also are pointing patients to herbal medications that can help with congestion, watery eyes and sneezing.
While drugs like Zyrtec and Claritin suppress symptoms, herbs work in the opposite way, Frye says.
"The homeopathic concept is that symptoms are the body's best response to restoring itself to health," Frye says. "Rather than suppressing symptoms, we should use small doses of herbs to help stimulate the body's self-corrective impulses to get healthy again."
The thing people need to understand with the herbal remedies, Frye says, is that they work slowly and become more effective over time. Though people in Asia have understood this for thousands of years, the lack of immediate results can frustrate Westerners who expect on-the-spot relief.
"The herbal medicines are so highly diluted that people stuck in the old world of chemistry think there can't be anything in them, and that it's all placebo effect," Frye says. "That's not true."
Frye recommends "allium cepa" to allergy sufferers with runny noses. Allium is the element of an onion that causes eyes and noses to run.
"Most people could get to a level of tolerable comfort with natural solutions," Frye says. "They may not be 100 percent symptom-free, but I'm not sure how important that is."
Dr. Gerard Mullin, director of integrative gastroenterology nutrition services at Hopkins Hospital, says herbs and vitamins are great at preventing or reducing the effects of seasonal allergies.
He recommends that people start a homeopathic regimen about six weeks before they expect their symptoms to hit.
"It's better to be preventive than to wait until you have a full-blown allergy," says Mullin, who has used a combination of herbs to combat his allergies. "It made me a lot better."
•Stinging nettle: a natural antihistamine.
•Vitamin C: can counter inflammation.
•Quercetin: an herb that can stabilize the cells that become irritated by allergens.
•Butterbur: a natural antihistamine.
•Green tea extract: a natural antihistamine.
For people who might be confused about which herbs to take, Frye and Mullin prescribe combination remedies that bundle a number of herbs into a single pill or tonic.