If you find yourself sneezing more often these days and experiencing a runny nose and itchy, watery eyes, you’re not alone. Fall allergy season is heading into full swing and many people are affected.
“Hay fever is one of the most common fall allergies people experience,” said Courtney McClintic, MD, Family Medicine Physician with ThedaCare Physicians–Green Lake “It’s not actually caused by hay, but by any number of pollens that become airborne in late summer and fall.”
Dr. McClintic explained that 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 that 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. Ragweed pollen is one of the primary causes of hay fever, allergic rhinitis, in the late summer and fall. In the Midwest, ragweed is everywhere, and it begins to bloom in late July and often continues until the first frost.
The most common allergic rhinitis symptoms are:
- Runny nose and 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 said hay fever can have significant effects on one’s life, including:
- Reduced quality of life. Hay fever can interfere with enjoyment of activities and cause people to miss work or school.
- Poor sleep. Hay fever symptoms can make it hard to fall or stay asleep, leading to fatigue and malaise.
- Worsening asthma. Hay fever 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, hay fever often is a factor in middle ear infections.
Cold or Allergies? How to Treat?
Dr. McClintic said the primary differences between a cold and allergies are:
- Allergies don’t cause a fever
- Itchy eyes, ears, nose and throat are hallmarks of allergies.
After identifying their symptoms as an allergic reaction, most allergy sufferers’ first line of defense is over-the-counter (OTC) allergy medications – pills/tablets and nasal sprays.
The next step is to reduce exposure to pollen, Dr. McClintic also offers these suggestions:
- Identify which pollens you are sensitive to and monitor local pollen counts, which 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 recommended 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 very helpful in keeping reactions to a minimum,” she said.
If over-the-counter medication and reducing exposure to pollen no longer relieve a person’s symptoms or cause unpleasant side effects, then Dr. McClintic said its time to seek the help of a medical professional such as a primary care provider or allergist.
“Allergy attacks can have a significant effect on one’s quality of life,” she said. “When over-the-counter drugs or other home remedies no longer help, it’s time for more in-depth care. Prescription-strength medications or allergy immunotherapy will likely be warranted.”
Allergy immunotherapy involves skin or blood testing to determine the patient’s allergens and then beginning desensitization shots – allergy shots – which are regular injections of small amounts of the allergen that causes your symptoms. Over time, the shots will reduce the body’s immune system reaction to the allergen and reduce symptoms. For some allergens, treatment can be given as tablets dissolved under the tongue.
“Bottom line, allergies are not enjoyable for anyone,” Dr. McClintic said. “They can cause people to really feel miserable, disrupt their lives and, in some cases, lead to more serious health problems. Generally speaking, there are fairly simple ways to help patients find relief. If you are suffering, talk with your provider about the best way to relieve your symptoms.”
For more than 110 years, ThedaCare® has been committed to improving the health and well-being of the communities it serves in Northeast and Central Wisconsin. The organization delivers care to more than 650,000 residents in 17 counties and employs approximately 7,000 providers and team members. ThedaCare has 180 points of care, including eight hospitals. As an organization committed to being a leader in Population Health, team members are dedicated to empowering people to live their unique, best lives. ThedaCare also partners with communities to understand needs, finding solutions together, and encouraging health awareness and action. ThedaCare is the first in Wisconsin to be a Mayo Clinic Care Network Member, giving specialists the ability to consult with Mayo Clinic experts about a patient’s care. ThedaCare is proud to partner with Children’s Wisconsin and Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin health network to enhance convenient access to the most advanced levels of specialty care. ThedaCare is a not-for-profit health system with a level II trauma center, comprehensive cancer treatment, stroke and cardiac programs, as well as primary care.