You’ve been up since 3 a.m. Your eyes are red and itchy, your nose is running, and you just sneezed for the umpteenth time. (Bless you!) Yep, you’re dealing with the least enjoyable part of springtime: seasonal allergies.
Those of you who suffer from seasonal allergies — sometimes called allergic rhinitis or hay fever — start feeling the effects most dramatically in the spring, when the trees, grass, and flowers are budding and blooming after their winter dormancy in cooler areas.
But some also get hit hard with similar symptoms during the fall because of plants such as ragweed, which can produce 1 billion grains of pollen in a single plant per season.
There’s even such a thing as winter allergies, which can be brought on by substances such as dust mites, mold and pet dander (dead skin).
Seasonal allergies can start and affect people at almost any age. And unfortunately, they aren’t getting any easier to deal with. Research suggests that as climate change continues to warm up the globe, allergy season likely will get longer and come with worsening allergy symptoms. That makes it important for those with allergies to be ready with the right strategies to ease symptoms to help them actually enjoy life.
An allergy occurs when your immune system overreacts to a certain substance called an allergen. The response can be triggered by a food or beverage, an airborne compound, or something you brush up against, such as poison ivy.
Seasonal allergies mainly occur in the spring and fall, when pollen levels rise. Pollen is a very fine powder that plants release into the air as part of fertilization. It can be inhaled or land on skin, clothing, and other surfaces. If you have seasonal allergies, breathing in pollen is usually what sets off the itchy, sneezy and runny-nose reactions.
Here are some of the most common culprits behind seasonal allergies:
The job of your immune system is to fight off viruses, bacteria and other infections. When you have a seasonal allergy (or any allergy), the immune system treats pollen, mold or other allergy-causing substances as a threat to your body.
To protect it, your immune cells (or B-cells) produce an antibody called immunoglobulin E, or IgE. Once you’re exposed, 2 types of cells, mast cells and basophils (white blood cells), grab those IgE cells and jump into action. When they reach the pollen or mold, they send out a chemical called histamine and other inflammatory chemicals.
This loosens your blood vessels so those white blood cells and protective substances can help fight off the pollen or mold. But the immune system is reacting to harmless substances like pollen or mold as if they were a major threat. This is how your seasonal allergy symptoms come about.
Symptoms of seasonal allergies can range in severity from mild to intense. You can have just a single symptom or multiple ones. The most common are:
People with both seasonal allergies and asthma may experience more severe symptoms and could find that allergens trigger an asthma flare-up. Also, your seasonal allergies may be worse if you have other types of allergies, such as sensitivity to pet dander (skin flakes) or dust mites (tiny insects that feed on dead skin cells).
In rare cases, someone may have such a strong reaction to an allergen that it triggers a condition called anaphylactic shock. This is considered a life-threatening reaction, and it can involve shortness of breath, swelling of your throat, dizziness, severe headache, vomiting or loss of consciousness.
Some good news: This type of extreme allergic reaction is rarely tied to seasonal allergies — though it’s possible for pollen or other inhaled substances to cause it. (It’s more typically caused by food or drug allergies or insect bites or stings.
If this occurs, dial 911 or seek emergency medical assistance immediately.
Seasonal allergies affect millions of people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 5.2 million children and 19.2 million adults in the U.S. have seasonal allergies.
Seasonal allergies also tend to drive people to the doctor’s office. The CDC says that hay fever is the primary diagnosis in about 7 million doctor’s office visits per year.
If allergy symptoms are mild and don’t disrupt your everyday activities, you likely don’t need to see an allergist.
But consider talking to your doctor if you have worsening symptoms, home remedies and over-the-counter medications aren’t helping, or you’re having recurring sinus infections. You may need more extensive treatment or at least a different medication that can help you better control your symptoms.
For many people, seasonal allergies are a lifelong challenge, but putting more effort into prevention can help, along with taking meaningful steps once symptoms begin.
Unlike the common cold, seasonal allergies usually affect you for longer than a few weeks. If you're experiencing seasonal allergy symptoms, it’s a good idea to check with your doctor.
Your doctor may have you take a skin or blood test for allergens, which can help determine what type of foreign substance you're having an allergic reaction to. You can also be diagnosed with seasonal allergies based on what time your symptoms develop.
Seasonal allergies can also run in your family, and if you have asthma, a disease that affects your lungs and breathing, you could also be at greater risk for developing one.
If you already know you have seasonal allergies, prevention can go a long way toward reducing or even preventing symptoms.
The most important way to prevent seasonal allergies is to start with oral antihistamines, a type of medication you can swallow that blocks the symptom-causing histamine reaction. Examples of these medicines, which you can buy over the counter (OTC) at your local pharmacy, include:
For example, if you know that your seasonal allergies hit you the hardest every April, you’ll want to start taking your OTC meds in mid-March so that they’ll be able to fight off those annoying seasonal allergy symptoms before they begin.
Other types of seasonal allergy medications are sprayed directly up your nose for symptom relief. While a nasal spray like Nasonex, which your doctor might have you start 2 to 4 weeks before allergy season begins, is not available over the counter, you can get versions of it that are, like Flonase (fluticasone) and Nasacort (triamcinolone).
You can even ask your doctor about a type of seasonal allergy treatment called sublingual (under the tongue) immunotherapy, in which you use a dropper to drop a substance that contains allergens under your tongue to help you build up your tolerance to them over time.
Your doctor or allergist will first test you to see what you’re allergic to. Then they’ll customize a dropper and gradually increase the dosage.
Not all OTC allergy medications are covered under health insurance plans, so it’s a good idea to contact an agent or read what is and isn’t covered under your plan.
Depending on what type of coverage you have, you could be eligible for reimbursement for certain types of seasonal allergy medications. The best thing to do is check your plan’s formulary (list of medications) to see what may be covered. Also, depending on what type of insurance plan you have, certain allergy tests or treatments could be covered.
Most plans don’t cover sublingual immunotherapy, but it could be a more cost-effective option for you.
If you haven’t started one of the OTC medications above or they’re not helping, you have other ways to manage the effects of seasonal allergies. You can:
There’s no cure for seasonal allergies. But if you’re consistently struggling with the issue, your doctor or allergy specialist may recommend immunotherapy, a type of treatment that helps your body fight off allergens. It’s a more involved, lengthy treatment than taking over-the-counter medications that control symptoms.
With immunotherapy, you’re gradually exposed to an increasing amount of allergen through shots that take place over weeks or months. This is meant to help train your immune system to deal with the allergens, rather than reacting with severe symptoms.
Before starting this treatment, your doctor will identify specific triggers through skin or blood tests. Often, immunotherapy is recommended only if you’re sensitive to several allergens or if you experience severe or worsening symptoms, especially frequent sinus infections.
The right health insurance can be an important part of your plan to stay healthy. Call a licensed insurance agent at 1-800-273-8115 to talk about what plan might be right for you, or explore uhone.com for options.
For informational purposes only. This information is compiled by UnitedHealthcare and does not diagnose problems or recommend specific treatment. Services and medical technologies referenced herein may not be covered under your plan. Please consult directly with your primary care physician if you need medical advice.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Allergies and Hay Fever.” December 13, 2021. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/allergies.htm
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Pollen and Your Health.” August 21, 2020. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/climateandhealth/effects/pollen-health.htm
Climate.gov/NOAA. “Climate & Allergies.” September 10, 2021. Retrieved from https://www.climate.gov/news-features/climate-and/climate-allergies
Environmental Protection Agency. “What is a HEPA filter?” Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/what-hepa-filter-1 Accessed April 4, 2022.
Harvard Medical School Harvard Health Publishing. “How can I reduce symptoms from my winter allergies?” December 1, 2019. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/how-can-i-reduce-symptoms-from-my-winter-allergies
Johns Hopkins Medicine. “Sublingual Immunotherapy - Allergy Drops.” Retrieved from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/otolaryngology/specialty_areas/sinus_center/sublingual_immunotherapy.html Accessed April 15, 2022.
MedlinePlus. “Allergy Blood Test.” July 30, 2020. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/lab-tests/allergy-blood-test/
MedlinePlus. “Anaphylaxis.” April 1, 2022. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000844.htm