If you reach for tissues and visit the drugstore seeking relief at certain times of the year, you may suffer from seasonal allergies, also called hay fever or allergic rhinitis. It occurs when the body’s immune system overreacts to the pollen produced by flowering plants. It can be quite severe, causing sleep problems, difficulties at school or work, social challenges, and even anxiety and depression.
For many of the approximately 24 million people in the US diagnosed with seasonal allergic rhinitis in 2018, it’s more than just a nuisance. People with respiratory illnesses can be especially susceptible to pollen, causing asthma attacks and hospital admissions. Luckily, there are ways to manage your symptoms and feel better! Continue reading about dealing with seasonal allergies.
What Causes Seasonal Allergies?
The first step in understanding seasonal allergies is to learn what causes them. Seasonal allergies are triggered by airborne particles that cause an immune system response, typically due to pollen or mold. Dust mites, pet dander, and other allergens can also be released into the air through these plants and trees.
How Are Seasonal Allergies Treated?
Prescription Allergy Shots
- Allergy shots, also called immunotherapy, are prescribed by a doctor to desensitize your body to the allergens that bother you. The medicine used for this treatment is an allergen extract, which contains only tiny amounts of the substance that causes your allergy symptoms.
Prescription and Over-The-Counter Allergy Medications
- Various over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription allergy medications are also available to help relieve your symptoms and make them less severe. These medications include antihistamines, decongestants, nasal sprays, eye drops, and other medicines that work in different ways depending on which kind of problem they’re treating (for example, stuffy nose vs. runny eyes).
- Immunotherapy is a carefully timed and gradually increased exposure to allergens, particularly those that are difficult to avoid, such as pollens, dust mites, and molds. The goal is to train the body’s immune system not to react to these allergens.
Immunotherapy might be used when other treatments aren’t effective or tolerated. It is also helpful in reducing asthma symptoms in some patients.
- Antihistamines block histamine, a symptom-causing chemical released by your immune system during an allergic reaction.
- Corticosteroids relieve symptoms by suppressing allergy-related inflammation.
- Decongestants are used for quick, temporary relief of nasal and sinus congestion. Side effects can include trouble sleeping, headache, increased blood pressure, and irritability. They’re not recommended for people with high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, glaucoma, or hyperthyroidism.
- Leukotriene inhibitors are prescription medications that block symptom-causing chemicals called leukotrienes. They are oral medications that relieve allergy signs and symptoms, including nasal congestion, runny nose, and sneezing. Only one type of this drug, montelukast (Singulair), is approved for treating hay fever.
- In some people, leukotriene inhibitors can cause psychological symptoms such as anxiety, depression, strange dreams, trouble sleeping, and suicidal thinking or behavior.
Mast Cell Stabilizers
- Mast cell stabilizers block the release of chemicals in the immune system that contribute to allergic reactions. Generally safe, these drugs usually need to be used for several days to produce the full effect. They’re often used when antihistamines are not working or not well-tolerated.
- When you have seasonal allergies but aren’t sure exactly which substances are causing them (or if there are multiple factors), getting tested can help pinpoint what’s happening and enable doctors to recommend effective treatments accordingly.
Ways To Reduce Your Exposure to Allergy Triggers
To reduce your exposure to the things that trigger your allergy signs and symptoms (allergens):
- Stay indoors on dry, windy days. The best time to go outside is after a good rain, which helps clear pollen from the air.
- Avoid lawn mowing, weed pulling, and other gardening chores that stir up allergens.
- Remove clothes you’ve worn outside and shower to rinse pollen from your skin and hair.
- Don’t hang laundry outside — pollen can stick to sheets and towels.
- Wear a face mask if you do outside chores.
Is It Seasonal Allergies or COVID-19?
Over the past three years, it’s become increasingly challenging to differentiate between the symptoms of COVID and allergies. Getting a COVID test is the most efficient way to know for sure, but there are also telltale differences.
- Although allergic rhinitis is commonly known as “hay fever,” elevated temperatures are not a symptom associated with allergies.
Severe Smell Loss
- Severe smell loss, also known as anosmia, is sudden and profound in most COVID cases. While allergies can also cause a diminished sense of smell due to nasal congestion, it’s usually a partial smell loss as opposed to the severe anosmia observed in many COVID patients.
Watery Eyes and Puffy Eyelids
- Although COVID can cause conjunctivitis, watery eyes and puffy eyelids usually point to allergies and are not typically seen in COVID. In addition, the duration of eye symptoms may also indicate allergies, with COVID symptoms generally clearing up within a couple of weeks.
Seasonal Allergies Are Treatable
Don’t let seasonal allergies prevent you from enjoying life! Comprehensive allergy and immunology care are available for children and adults to help you manage your seasonal allergies. So make an appointment with your local healthcare team to nip your allergies in the bud and enjoy a healthy and active lifestyle.
This article was reviewed by Suzanne Torris, MS, RN, FNP.