Tips to Manage Seasonal Allergy Symptoms

With allergy season arriving early in parts of the country, an allergy specialist shares what to know about seasonal allergies and how to treat them.

Seasonal allergies — also known as hay fever — are allergies that occur during a specific time of the year. For many parts of the country coming off a warm winter, allergy season is already here.

“Some trees started blooming in the last week of February,” says Dr. Mervat Nassef, an allergy and immunology specialist at NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital. “That means the allergy season may start up to two weeks early. Plus, if we have a warm, wet spring, we can expect high levels of pollen leading to a bad allergy season.”

Like other types of allergies, seasonal allergies develop when the body’s immune system overreacts to something in the environment. Most seasonal allergies are caused by pollinating plants, typically grass, trees, and weeds.

“From spring through fall, I see everything from red, swollen eyes to difficulty breathing. Seasonal allergies can disrupt sleep and the ability to focus,” says Dr. Nassef. “You do not have to suffer, but you do have to find the treatment that’s right for you and your symptoms. Getting the right treatment means you can enjoy the blossoming trees, not hide from them.”

Dr. Nassef, who is also a professor of pediatrics at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, says controlling allergies is especially important in school-age children. “Allergy seasons coincide with the beginning and end of the school year, when kids are adjusting to new classes and taking important exams. Controlling their allergies allows them to function at their best during these critical times.”

Here, Dr. Nassef shares more about seasonal allergies and how to treat the symptoms.

Dr. Mervat Nassef

Why do seasonal allergies happen?
Dr. Nassef: Seasonal allergies, like other types of allergies, develop when the body’s immune system overreacts to something in the environment, usually during spring, summer, or fall when certain plants pollinate.

It is an exaggerated response to an allergen that triggers an inflammatory reaction, leading to symptoms of itchy eyes, sneezing, runny nose, and congestion.

When is allergy season?
In many areas of the U.S., tree pollination begins early in the year, followed by grass pollination in the summer and weeds in the fall. Allergies vary by geography. In tropical climates, for example, grass may pollinate throughout a good portion of the year and create an extended allergy season.

Common Symptoms for Seasonal Allergies

• Itchy nose
• Runny nose
• Congestion
• Sneezing
• Watery eyes
• Red, itchy eyes
• Swollen eyelids
• Itchy throat
• Cough
• Fatigue
• Sleep disturbance

Why do some people suffer from allergies more than others?
Seasonal allergies can develop at any age, from children to adults. There’s no way to know in advance if you’ll get them, but seasonal allergies often run in families and are common in patients with asthma or eczema.

What treatments are available for seasonal allergies?
Fortunately for allergy sufferers, there are many safe and effective treatments. Some medications are used to relieve symptoms, while others are used to prevent them. It is important to tailor the treatment to the symptoms, as different medications work better for some symptoms than others.

Talk to your doctor. Allergy treatment is specific to each patient and what causes the allergy — seek allergy testing if you do not already know.

Some people may be candidates for allergy shots or immunotherapy tablets. Immunotherapy is the only treatment that can take away the allergy by changing the immune response to the allergens. Injection immunotherapy (allergy shots) has been around for a hundred years. A newer form of immunotherapy uses tablets containing the allergen; the tablets are placed under the tongue and lead to decreased reactivity over time. This type of sublingual immunotherapy is available for dust mites, grass, and ragweed allergies.

What about over-the-counter medications?
Try over-the-counter allergy medication if you notice symptoms. For itching and sneezing, the second-generation non-sedating antihistamines are the best. For nasal congestion and postnasal drip, nasal steroids are most effective.

It’s best to avoid the older antihistamines, because they can cause sleepiness. And while side effects are usually minor for over-the-counter allergy medications, some oral decongestants can cause heart palpitations. If you’re not sure of which medication to buy, talk to the pharmacist or your doctor.

When should you see a doctor?
If you are not sure whether your symptoms are due to allergies, see an allergist or immunologist for evaluation and testing, especially if symptoms affect your sleep, work, or schoolwork.

If over-the-counter medications do not control your symptoms well, or if you develop side effects, see an allergist or immunologist to discuss other therapeutic options.

This story first appeared in the Columbia University Irving Medical Center Newsroom.

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