Seasonal allergies—also called “allergic rhinitis” or “hay fever”—cause itchy eyes, runny noses, sneezing, and scratchy throats in certain people whose immune systems are prone to allergies.
The actual triggers that cause these symptoms may vary from season to season. The most common triggers are ragweed in the fall, trees in the spring, and grass in the summer. All of these triggers cause the immune system to identify allergens as intruders, which creates an exaggerated immune response that sparks the uncomfortable, bothersome allergic symptoms many of us know so well.
Who Gets Seasonal Allergies?
People who suffer from seasonal allergies have immune systems that are overreacting to the allergen. Even children who have never experienced seasonal allergies can develop them. In general, seasonal allergies tend to develop by 10 years of age, peaking at around 20, with symptoms often disappearing later in adulthood.
Adults can also suddenly develop seasonal allergies—even after having an allergy-free childhood, which can seem like a bit of a surprise. Changes in hormones or moving to a new geographical location may contribute to seasonal allergies in adults. Different trees, grasses and mold may grow in the new location and cause you to become exposed to new allergy triggers.
Additionally, there is a definite genetic component to allergies. Immune systems can be predisposed to you having allergies, though specific allergies are not inherited. In other words, your mother having an allergy to dust mites does not mean you will have the same allergy to dust mites, but it may mean you are more likely to become allergic to something during your lifetime.
The good news is that there are many strategies and therapies you can try to help control symptoms and keep you more comfortable throughout the year.
Treatments for Seasonal Allergies
Many treatments for controlling symptoms are available over the counter, including:
Antihistamine tablets (with or without decongestants). Oral antihistamines can help to reduce runny nose, itchy, watery eyes, sneezing. Adding a decongestant can relieve nasal congestion/stuffy nose
Nasal sprays. Steroidal nasal sprays have also recently become available without a prescription at your local pharmacy, and can be effective at controlling symptoms of the nose
Eye drops. They can relive itchy eyes
Nasal rinses. Saline solutions may help to flush pollen out of the sinus cavity and relieve congestion using a small container for nasal rinsing such as a neti pot
Be sure to speak to your doctor or pharmacist before taking any medication.
If you have seasonal allergies that are not controlled by over-the-counter methods, it’s important to see your doctor or an allergist. Those with allergies may be at increased risk for also developing asthma, including allergy-induced asthma, which is worsened by allergy triggers. It is important to know that asthma is a more serious condition and requires medical attention.
An allergist can help you identify a more personalized list of triggers and practical ways to avoid them. Also, those in need of more comprehensive therapy, such as immunotherapy (allergy shots), can get help from experts.
What Else Can You Do About It?
Many experts advise that you start taking your allergy medicines about 2 weeks before the allergy season begins. This is important because it means you are proactively treating the issue before your allergic triggers begin to bloom. So, for example, if you have spring allergies, you may want to start taking your antihistamines at the end of winter. Be sure to consult your doctor on the best time to start medication.
One of the most important things you can do to reduce seasonal allergic reactions is to avoid your triggers. To find out what these are specifically, you may want to see an allergist for some skin or blood testing. But, in general, you can:
Check the pollen counts each day during your allergic season and avoid being outdoors when counts are highest. Pollen counts are often lowest in the evening or at night
When you are out, wear protective eyewear—glasses or sunglasses—to keep the pollen from irritating your eyes
Wash your hair at the end of the day to avoid transferring pollen to your pillowcase
On high pollen days, consider rinsing off pets before letting them back into the house
You can also keep the windows shut and use the air conditioner
Wear a protective mask when gardening or doing heavy outdoor work on high pollen days
There are many things you can do to lessen you seasonal suffering from allergic triggers. If you suffer from seasonal allergies: think ahead, see your doctor, and avoid known triggers.
Michael Zielinski, PharmD, RPh, is a Senior Manager in Global Medical Affairs at Pfizer Inc.