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If you are one of the millions of people who suffer from seasonal allergies, then you are very familiar with the typical allergy symptoms: sneezing, a runny or stuffy nose, and itchy or watery eyes. But seasonal allergies are more than just spring “hay fever”—they can happen at any time of the year, depending on the allergen. Read on to learn more about how to recognize and treat seasonal allergies.
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What are seasonal allergies?
Most allergies are caused by the immune system overreacting to harmless substances in the world around us. Common allergens include animal dander, dust, food (like peanuts or shellfish), and pollen.
Seasonal allergies were nicknamed “hay fever” because they would bedevil farmers during the spring and summer hay-cutting seasons. Today, it’s a catch-all term for symptoms caused by various outdoor allergens, including tree pollens, grass pollens, and weed pollens. The more medical term is “allergic rhinitis.”
Allergic rhinitis, or hay fever, is a common reaction to inhaled allergens. Symptoms include sneezing, a runny or stuffy nose, and itchy or watery eyes. Allergic rhinitis occurs with seasonal allergies or chronic (perennial) allergies (Akhouri, 2021).
Seasonal allergies can occur in certain seasons (like spring and/or fall), or they can be triggered year-round (perennial) by things like dust mites. And they’re widespread—up to 30% of children and adults in the U.S. have allergic rhinitis (Akhouri, 2021).
Causes of seasonal allergies, by season
An allergic reaction happens in response to an allergen. For example, pollen particles contain proteins that irritate the eyes, nose, sinuses, and throat once they’re inhaled. The body launches an immune response to get rid of the irritants. This response creates antibodies and releases a chemical called histamine. Histamine is the primary cause of typical allergy symptoms like sneezing and itching.
We tend to think of “allergy season” as the spring—that’s when pollen from trees, flowers, and grasses are most abundant—but you can experience seasonal allergy symptoms in winter, spring, summer, or fall.
Spring is when trees bloom, producing all kinds of tree pollen that bothers people who are sensitive to them. You can see the pollen coating your car or anything else you leave outside. Common tree pollen allergies include birch, cedar, alder, horse chestnut, willow, and poplar (AAFA, 2018).
Pollen counts are highest during spring, but grass pollen and weeds can be especially problematic in the summer. Mold (fungus) grows quickly in hot weather, producing irritating mold spores. They’re joined by ragweed when it begins to flower in August.
Ragweed is a collection of soft-stemmed plants (in the genus Ambrosia) that grow throughout the United States. They flower in mid-August and are a significant allergy trigger in the fall. Each plant contains up to one billion particles of pollen, which can travel long distances—ragweed pollen has been found 400 miles out to sea (AAFA, 2019).
Although many outdoor allergy sufferers find relief after the first frost renders pollen-producing plants dormant, indoor allergies can be troublesome in winter. Indoor allergens include mold, dust (specifically, dust mites), pet dander, flooring/upholstery, and cockroaches.
Signs and symptoms of seasonal allergies
The symptoms of seasonal allergies may be similar to the common cold at first, including (Akhouri, 2021):
- Sneezing or a runny nose
- Postnasal drip or frequent throat clearing
- Nasal, ear, or sinus congestion
- Watery or itchy eyes
- Itchy throat
- Dark circles under the eyes (allergic shiners)
Allergy symptoms vs. COVID-19 symptoms
Looking at the symptom list for seasonal allergies, you may notice that some of them resemble COVID-19 symptoms. However, most of the time, you can tell them apart.
Allergies usually involve some form of itching, whether it is an itchy nose, throat, eyes, or even skin. COVID-19 does not typically cause itchiness.
Allergies vs. COVID-19: how to tell the difference
While you may get a runny or stuffy nose or a mild cough with both COVID-19 and allergies, COVID-19 can also come with fever, trouble breathing, muscle aches, fatigue, diarrhea, headache, or new loss of taste or smell. If you have asthma that gets worse during allergy season, then you may experience trouble breathing. Otherwise, most of the symptoms of COVID-19 are not present with seasonal allergies (CDC, 2021).
Diagnosing seasonal allergies
If you suspect you’re suffering from seasonal allergies, talk to your healthcare provider. They might recommend over-the-counter or prescription remedies.
If your allergies persist or are particularly bothersome, your healthcare provider may refer you to an allergist who can administer a skin test. Allergy skin testing can help determine which specific agents are triggering your allergies—that can help you avoid them. The allergist may also recommend further treatment, such as allergy shots.
Preventing seasonal allergies
The best way to prevent allergies is to avoid the allergens that bother you. However, with seasonal allergies, that can be impossible—pollens and mold are everywhere. However, there are some steps you can take to prevent bad allergy symptoms, including:
- Staying indoors when the pollen count is high
- Using an in-home air filtration system
- Wearing sunglasses to keep pollen out of your eyes
- Drying your clothes and sheets in the dryer so that they don’t get covered in pollen
- Using a dehumidifier in damp places to reduce mold growth
- Covering your bedding and pillows in dust-mite protective coverings
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Treating seasonal allergies
You might find relief from your seasonal allergies with medication, such as over-the-counter antihistamines, decongestants, or eye drops. Your healthcare provider may prescribe prescription medications that can reduce inflammation in your nose and sinuses.
Alternatively, they might recommend allergy shots, a form of immunotherapy that helps your immune system acclimate to certain allergens. You receive regular injections of tiny amounts of an allergen or allergens over months to years to help your body get used to specific allergens.
Some people swear by alternative treatments or natural remedies like honey, sinus irrigation, etc. The scientific data on these therapies is limited—check with your healthcare provider before starting allergy treatments.
- Akhouri S, House SA. (2021). Allergic Rhinitis.In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538186/.
Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA). (2018). Tree pollen: spring’s first allergy offender. Retrieved on May 20, 2021 from https://community.aafa.org/blog/tree-pollen-spring-s-first-allergy-offender.
Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA). (2019). Ragweed pollen allergy. Retrieved on May 20, 2021 from https://www.aafa.org/ragweed-pollen/
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2021). Symptoms of COVID-19. Retrieved on May 20, 2021 from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/symptoms-testing/symptoms.html/.