What are seasonal allergies?
An allergy is the body's hypersensitivity to substances in the environment (allergens). Allergic reactions range from mild itching, sneezing or eczema (inflamed, itchy skin), to severe hives, hay fever, wheezing, and shortness of breath. An extreme allergic reaction can result in anaphylactic shock, a life-threatening situation in which a person's airway swells shut and blood pressure drops.
Scientists believe allergies originated millions of years ago as a way for the human body to rid itself of parasites and invading worms. The body fights these and other invaders by producing an antibody called immunoglobulin E (IgE for short) in the intestines and lungs. Without modern parasites to fight, IgE reacts to other foreign substances in the body. IgE triggers immune cells to release a number of chemicals, one of which is histamine. Histamine produces hives, watery eyes, sneezing, and itching. The more a person is exposed to allergens, the more the body produces IgE; hence, allergies often get worse with age.
Pollen grains from trees, grasses and weeds can float through the air in spring, summer or fall. But on their way to fertilize plants and tree flowers, pollen particles often end up in our noses, eyes, ears and mouths. The result can be sneezing spells, watery eyes, congestion and an itchy throat.
The most common symptom of seasonal allergies is allergic rhinitis, otherwise known as hay fever.
What are the symptoms of allergies?
Allergy symptoms vary, but may include:
- Breathing problems
- Burning, tearing, or itchy eyes
- Conjunctivitis (red, swollen eyes)
- Itching of the nose, mouth, throat, skin, or any other area
- Runny nose
- Skin rashes
- Stomach cramps
How do you treat allergies?
The first step is to avoid the allergen(s).
Once you know you have seasonal allergies, try to avoid pollen as much as possible, says Chowdhury. Pay attention to pollen counts and try to stay indoors when pollen levels are highest. Pollen counts measure how much pollen is in the air (pollen level) and are expressed in grains of pollen per square meter of air collected during a 24-hour period.
In the late summer and early fall, during ragweed pollen season, pollen levels are highest in the morning.
In the spring and summer, during the grass pollen season, pollen levels are highest in the evening.
Some molds, another allergy trigger, may also be seasonal. For example, leaf mold is more common in the fall.
Sunny, windy days can be especially troublesome for pollen allergy sufferers.
It may also help to:
- keep windows closed in your house and car and run the air conditioner
- avoid mowing grass and doing other yard work, if possible
- wear a face mask designed to filter pollen out of the air and keep it from reaching nasal passages, if you must work outdoors
The next step to finding allergy relief is to use allergy medications to treat the allergy.
What types of allergy medications are available?
The most common medications used in the treatment of allergies are antihistamines, decongestants, eye drops and nasal sprays.
Oral and nasal antihistamines:
These drugs, whether OTC or prescription, counteract the action of histamine, a substance released in the body during an allergic reaction.
Benadryl (diphenhydramine) and Chlor-Trimeton (chlorpheniramine) are examples of OTC antihistamines. Drowsiness is a common side effect, so don't take these types of drugs when you have to drive, operate machinery, or do other activities that require you to be alert.
Non-sedating OTC antihistamines include Claritin and Alavert (both loratadine) and Zyrtec (cetirizine). Zyrtec may cause mild drowsiness. Some non-sedating antihistamines, such as Clarinex (desloratadine) and Allegra (fexofenadine), are available by prescription. Many oral antihistamines are available OTC and in generic form.
The prescription drugs Astelin (azelastine) and Patanase (olopatadine) are antihistamine nasal sprays approved to treat allergy symptoms. They can be used several times a day. Side effects include drowsiness, a bitter taste in the mouth, headache, and stinging in the nose.
These drugs, available both by prescription and OTC, come in oral and nasal spray forms. They are sometimes recommended in combination with antihistamines, which used alone do not have an effect on nasal congestion. Allegra D is an example of a drug that contains both an antihistamine (fexofenadine) and a decongestant (pseudoephedrine).
Drugs that contain pseudoephedrine are available without a prescription but are kept behind the pharmacy counter as a safeguard because of their use in making methamphetamine—a powerful, highly addictive stimulant often produced illegally in home laboratories. You will need to ask your pharmacist and show identification to purchase drugs that contain doephedrine.
Using nose sprays and drops more than a few days may give you a "rebound" effect—your nasal congestion will get worse. These drugs are more useful for short-term use to relieve nasal congestion.
These are typically sprayed into the nose once or twice a day to treat inflammation. Drugs in this category include Nasonex (mometasone furoate) and Flonase (fluticasone propionate). Side effects may include stinging in the nose.
Non-steroidal nasal sprays:
NasalCrom (cromolyn sodium), an OTC nasal spray, can help prevent symptoms of allergic rhinitis if used before symptoms start. This non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) needs to be used three to four times a day to be effective.
Leukotriene receptor antagonist:
The prescription drug Singulair (montelukast sodium) is approved to treat asthma and to help relieve symptoms of allergic rhinitis. It works by blocking substances in the body called leukotrienes. Side effects may include headache, ear infection, sore throat, and upper respiratory infection.
What are rhinitis and sinusitis?
Rhinitis is an inflammation of the mucous membranes of the nose. Symptoms include:
- Itchy nose, roof of the mouth, throat, eyes and ears
- Runny nose
- Watery eyes
Seasonal allergic rhinitis (or hay fever) is caused by allergens like mold and pollen.
Some people have symptoms of rhinitis no matter what the season. This is called perennial allergic rhinitis. It can be caused by allergens such as animal dander, indoor mold, dust mites and cockroaches.
Sinusitis is a painful, long-lasting inflammation of the sinuses. Sinuses are the hollow cavities around the cheek bones found around the eyes and behind the nose.
Symptoms of sinusitis include:
- Green or gray nasal discharge
- Postnasal drip
- Pressure in the face
- A cough that won't go away
Sinusitis is common in the winter. It may last for months or years if it is not properly treated. Colds are the most common cause of acute sinusitis, but people with allergies are much more likely to develop sinusitis than people who do not have allergies.