If you find yourself sneezing more often these days and experiencing a runny nose and itchy, watery eyes, you’re not alone. In fact, nearly one in three adults and more than one in four children in the United States suffer from seasonal allergies.
“Hay fever is one of the most common fall allergies people experience,” says Dr. Courtney McClintic, Family Medicine Physician with ThedaCare Physicians-Green Lake. “It’s not actually caused by hay, but by any number of pollens that become airborne during the warmer months.”
People have allergy attacks when their immune system reacts to a foreign substance — an allergen — such as pollen, pet dander, dust mites, mold, or certain foods. The body responds by producing antibodies that release histamines into the bloodstream. These can inflame skin, sinuses, nasal passages, and/or the digestive system, depending on the allergen. Many plants — including trees, grasses, weeds, and flowers — produce pollen that becomes airborne at various times throughout the year.
Common allergic rhinitis symptoms include:
- Runny nose
- Nasal stuffiness
- Watery, itchy eyes
- Itchy nose, roof of mouth, or throat
- Mucus that runs down the back of the throat (postnasal drip)
- Swollen, bruised-appearing skin under the eyes (allergic shiners)
- Extreme tiredness/fatigue from poor sleep
While the list of symptoms may not seem serious, Dr. McClintic says hay fever can impact you in many ways, including:
- Reduced quality of life. Allergies can interfere with your enjoyment of activities and cause you to miss work or school.
- Poor sleep. Symptoms can make it hard to fall or stay asleep, leading to fatigue and malaise.
- Worsening asthma. Allergies can worsen symptoms of asthma, such as coughing and wheezing.
- Sinusitis. Prolonged sinus congestion may increase the risk of getting an infection or inflammation of the membrane that lines the sinuses.
- Ear infection. In children, allergies are often a factor in middle ear infections.
Cold or Allergies?
It can be hard to tell the difference between a cold and allergies, but there are some clues to watch for. Allergies don’t cause a fever. In addition, itchy eyes, ears, nose, and throat are hallmarks of allergies, Dr. McClintic says.
After identifying symptoms as an allergic reaction, the first line of defense for most allergy sufferers is over-the-counter allergy medications. These include pills/tablets and nasal sprays.
The next step is to reduce exposure to pollen. Dr. McClintic also offers these suggestions:
- Identify which pollens affect you most, and monitor local pollen counts. These often detail which pollen concentrations are high.
- Keep windows and doors closed at home during peak pollen season. Recirculate the air in your car when driving, especially in the countryside.
- Know when pollen counts are highest, and stay indoors during those times. Ragweed pollen is highest in the morning, while tree and grass pollens are highest in the evening.
- Shower, wash your hair and change clothes after working or playing outdoors for an extended period of time.
Dr. McClintic recommends starting any allergy medications a couple of weeks before you expect symptoms to begin.
“Getting a base level of medication into your system before pollen counts go crazy is helpful in keeping reactions to a minimum,” she says.
Additional Care Options
If you’ve tried over-the-counter medications and reducing pollen exposure and are still suffering, you may need to seek care.
“Allergy attacks can have a significant impact on your quality of life,” Dr. McClintic says. “When home remedies no longer help, it’s time for more in-depth care. Prescription-strength medications or allergy immunotherapy may be an option.”
Allergy immunotherapy involves skin or blood testing to determine your allergens. You may then begin desensitization shots — often called allergy shots. These are regular injections of small amounts of the allergen that causes your symptoms. Over time, the shots will decrease your body’s immune system reaction to the allergen and reduce symptoms. For some allergens, treatment can be given as tablets dissolved under the tongue.
“Allergies can cause people to feel miserable, disrupt their lives, and, in some cases, lead to more serious health problems,” Dr. McClintic says. “Generally speaking, there are fairly simple ways to help you find relief. If you continue to suffer, talk with your provider about the best way to relieve your symptoms.”