What are seasonal allergies?
Seasonal allergies are a response of your autoimmune system to environmental factors, like pollen, mold, various plants and dust. They are called “seasonal” because they occur during a certain time of the year. For example, pollen naturally occurs most often in spring, which is when many people get pollen allergies — more commonly known as “hay fever” — where the mucous membranes of eyes and nose start itching and get inflamed to the point that it’s causing a runny nose and tearing eyes. Depending on the country, some 10% to 30% of the population get hay fever once a year. It’s about 10% in the U.S.
Seasonal allergies thus are different from permanent allergies (anaphylaxis), such as to certain foods or animals (gluten, seafood, peanuts, cats, insect stings etc.), but fortunately, also tend to be less severe, i.e., there usually aren’t any life-threatening allergic reactions. Someone with a seafood allergy can actually die from consuming seafood and bee stings sometimes cause fatal allergic reactions, whereas that’s not true for pollen.
But the biochemistry behind seasonal allergies still is similar to serious allergies, because both cases are an autoimmune overreaction. Scientific research has shown that there’s a connection between a society’s increasing urbanization and cleanliness and the prevalence of seasonal allergies. As our lives become cleaner and more sterile, our bodies’ bacteria diversity sharply decreases and the immune system becomes weaker and tends to overreact more often. Research on the world’s few remaining hunter-gatherer societies showed that for them seasonal allergies are extremely rare, about 1 in 1,500, whereas 1 in 3 Brits suffers from pollen allergy.
Your specific type of seasonal allergy will depend on where you live and what environmental factors surround you. People from different countries have different allergic reactions to different flower and tree pollen. Moreover, seasonal allergies can suddenly start at any point in your life. You may have walked down that elm alley in your hometown for the past 25 years of your life, but suddenly this spring you got an allergic reaction to elm pollen. Typically, seasonal allergies tend to start in the 20s and 30s, but you can really get them at any age. On the upside, it’s also possible for your immune system to one day change back to tolerating environmental factors, i.e., you stop being allergic to your neighbor’s cat or ragweed pollen. That happens more rarely, though.
If you think that there’s something in your home or work environment that may cause allergic reactions, seek help from a doctor, who can do a blood test to determine against what exactly you are allergic. Such a diagnosis of triggers can be very helpful for avoiding future allergic outbreaks. In tough cases, you’ll need to see an immunologist, who can do more elaborate tests on your blood and skin to nail down the suspected allergic triggers.
What are typical seasonal allergy symptoms?
There are as many possible symptoms as there are causes for seasonal allergies, and the number of symptoms and their severity will differ from person to person. However, the list below shows the most common allergy manifestations, with an emphasis on hay fever, as this by far is the most common seasonal allergy.
- Coughing & sneezing
- Itching, tearing eyes
- Sore throat
- Congested and/or nose
- Itchy or sore throat
Seasonal allergies rarely become more severe than these symptoms, but if you notice any of the following symptoms, you best find immediate medical assistance.
- Breathing difficulties
- Swollen throat or tongue
- Fainting or severe weakness
- Coughing blood
How can I treat seasonal allergies?
Firstly, avoid the allergic triggers, if you know what they are. Don’t pass through that elm alley anymore. If you don’t know your triggers or aren’t sure, have a diagnostic blood test done. Also bear in mind that your immune system changes throughout your life and one day decides to stop tolerating something you didn’t have trouble with so far.
If your allergy is hay fever, avoid places with a lot of pollen and keep your windows shut when pollen have their heyday (typically several weeks in the spring). If dust mites are your trigger, you’ll need to keep home and office clean.
To fend off an allergic outbreak and get your nose and eyes under control, there are several OTC medications you can try, such as:
- Saline or decongestant nose spray
- Antihistamines (Benadryl, Claritin, etc.)
- Nasal steroid sprays (Flonase, etc.)
There even are allergy shots and more serious medications, although they require prescriptions. Discuss with your doctor what the best treatment option for seasonal allergy could be, and whether such prescription drugs are needed.
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Schmidt, Charles W. “Pollen Overload: Seasonal Allergies in a Changing Climate.” Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 124, no. 4, Apr. 2016, 10.1289/ehp.124-a70. Accessed 29 Jan. 2020.
Xie, Zhi-Juan, et al. “Advances in the Clinical and Mechanism Research of Pollen Induced Seasonal Allergic Asthma.” American Journal of Clinical and Experimental Immunology, vol. 8, no. 1, 2019, pp. 1–8, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6420698/. Accessed 29 Jan. 2020.