If certain times of year signal the start of a runny nose and itchy eyes, you likely have seasonal allergies. Millions of people around the world suffer from hay fever (allergic rhinitis), which is an allergy triggered by pollen or mold spores. Seasonal allergies are annoying, but the right medications can help to reduce your symptoms and allow you to enjoy summer in style. Learn more about seasonal allergies so you can understand how to protect yourself when the pollen count is high.
What Are Seasonal Allergies?
Seasonal allergies are a disorder where the immune system overreacts to pollen or mold in the air. The immune system behaves as though these harmless pollen spores are invaders and produces antibodies to destroy them. Then, these antibodies cause symptoms similar to those of a cold: sneezing, congestion, and a runny nose.
These terms can help you understand seasonal allergies:
- Immune system: The body’s system for fighting infections.
- Antibodies: Proteins that the body creates to destroy bacteria and viruses.
- Allergen: Something that triggers an allergy.
Types of Seasonal Allergies
Various types of pollen can trigger seasonal allergies. If you have symptoms in the early spring, you are probably reacting to tree pollen. Grass pollen causes symptoms in early summer, while weed pollen is usually to blame in the fall.
Sometimes mold spores, which grow in soil and rotting wood, can cause seasonal allergies. Warmer weather increases the production of mold spores, which means you can start to develop mold-related symptoms in the spring. In the United States, in warmer regions, the highest concentration of mold spores occurs in July, whereas in cold areas, mold is most prevalent in October.
Symptoms and Causes
These are the most common symptoms of seasonal allergies:
- Itchy eyes
- Runny nose
- Stuffy nose
- Itching in nose, mouth, and throat
It can be difficult to tell the difference between a head cold and seasonal allergies, according to Susan Besser, MD, a family physician in Baltimore, Maryland.
“The symptoms are very similar,” said Dr. Besser. “[But] treatment for allergy symptoms will also relieve cold symptoms. That said, with a viral infection (spring cold) you may have a low-grade fever and fatigue, both of which are not likely with allergies.”
Experts aren’t sure why some people have allergies and others don’t. Allergies often run in families, which means genes are probably partly to blame for allergic reactions.
In the United States, a plant called ragweed is one of the most common triggers for seasonal allergies. This plant grows wild all over the country, and it releases pollen between August and November.
Prevention and Risks
Avoiding pollen and mold spores can help you prevent allergy symptoms. Watch out for mold and pollen counts in your local weather reports so you know when you are most at risk of developing these symptoms.
Allergy medications work best if you start taking them before the pollen count starts rising. Use a calendar app on your mobile phone to remind you to take your medications when allergy season approaches.
The risk of seasonal allergy symptoms is the highest around midday and in the afternoon. Stay indoors during these times, and keep your doors and windows closed.
“If you are spending lots of time outdoors, be sure to pretreat before you go out,” suggested Dr. Besser. “When you come in, change clothing and take a shower — wash all that pollen and dust off yourself (and that means wash your hair too). Shower in the evening so you don’t go to bed covered in pollen. You want to limit exposure as much as possible.”
Diagnosis and Tests
When you see your doctor, describe the symptoms you have and the months and times of day in which you experience them. This information can help your doctor diagnose seasonal allergies.
Your doctor may refer you to an allergy specialist such as an allergist or immunologist, who can conduct allergy tests to diagnose seasonal allergies.
- Blood tests allow doctors to look for antibodies against common allergens in your blood.
- Skin tests are more accurate than blood tests, but they can be uncomfortable. For this test, doctors inject an allergen into your skin to see whether your body reacts to it. If you are allergic, your skin will become red and swollen.
Treatment, Procedures, and Medication
You can buy several medications for seasonal allergies at the pharmacy. But before you self medicate, discuss your symptoms with your doctor to be sure that you are taking the right medications. Some over-the-counter treatments include:
- Antihistamines reduce sneezing, runny nose, and itching or watery eyes.
- Decongestants and nasal sprays reduce stuffiness in your nose.
- Some over-the-counter allergy medications combine antihistamines with decongestants.
For stubborn allergy symptoms, you may need specialized treatment. Doctors can give regular injections, known as allergy shots, that are very effective at reducing symptoms. These injections contain tiny amounts of the substances that trigger your seasonal allergies. Over time, the immune system starts to react less strongly to the allergens.
Healthy Lifestyle Tips
Staying healthy during allergy season involves avoiding pollen and mold spores as much as possible. Try to split the household chores with your family, so you don’t have to do outside jobs, such as mowing the lawn or raking leaves.
No one wants to spend the whole summer indoors, and a pollen mask can help you spend time outdoors while limiting your exposure to pollen. Wear this mask whenever you spend a long time outside.
In the house, use air conditioning to clean the air. Air conditioning systems filter the air to remove pollen and mold spores. “This is especially important as the weather gets warmer, because air conditioners can be helpful for seniors with lung or heart diseases who may have trouble breathing in hot and humid conditions,” said Dr. Kumar Dharmarajan, MD, a geriatrician and Chief Scientific Officer at Clover Health. “To ensure the air circulation minimizes pollutant exposure, make sure to change your filters and have your air conditioner serviced regularly.”
You might find it helpful to separate your clothing into indoor and outdoor clothes to avoid bringing pollen into your home. Your pets can also bring pollen into the house. You may need to keep cats inside during peak allergy season and be sure to rinse off your dog after they’ve spent time outside.
Types of Doctors to See
See your primary care doctor if you are having trouble managing your allergy symptoms — they can refer you to a specialist, if necessary. Allergists and immunologists specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of allergies, as well as asthma, and other diseases of the immune system. If something is causing you to have an allergic reaction, it likely has to do your immune system. Allergists and immunologists have been trained to test your body to find what elements are causing the immune reaction and then determine the best course of treatment for your needs.
“Allergists can also tell you if your symptoms are unrelated to seasonal allergies,” said Dr. Dharmarajan. “For instance, non-allergic rhinitis, a condition that affects up to a third of older adults, mimics many seasonal allergy symptoms, such as congestion and sneezing. For people with non-allergic rhinitis, traditional allergy treatments may be ineffective, so an allergist can prescribe a different remedy.”
Seasonal allergies are frustrating, but medications can help to keep them under control. Remember to take your medications on time and avoid spending time outdoors when the pollen count is high. If over-the-counter medications don’t help, see your doctor find out whether allergy shots could be right for you. Use CareDash to find a doctor near you.