Find out what the most common allergens are and how to cope through your season of allergy symptoms.

By Julia Guerra
March 26, 2020

When your eyes are so itchy they're swelling like a pair of pink balloons, you're sneezing so much the people around you have given up saying "bless you," and your trash can is overflowing with tissues, that's when you know allergy season has officially begun.

Over 50 million Americans deal with allergies (aka "hay fever") every year, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. And while you might associate itchy sniffles with early springtime, technically every season is allergy season. The question of when you experience allergy symptoms will depend on what you're actually allergic to. (BTW, food allergies are a totally different thing—here's how to tell if you really have a food allergy.)

There are two types of allergens: perennial allergens—aka year-round offenders—and seasonal allergies that pop up in certain months, explains board-certified pediatric and adult allergist, Katie Marks-Cogan, M.D., co-founder and chief allergist for Ready, Set, Food!. Perennial allergens include things like mold, dust mites, and pet dander. Seasonal allergens, on the other hand, center around pollen—most commonly, tree pollen, grass, and ragweed pollen.

However, allergy seasons don't necessarily abide by a calendar, especially now that climate change has skewed their start and end times in recent years. Unseasonably warm days can increase the amount of pollen being produced, thus extending the duration of pollen seasons. Warmer weather can also increase the effects of "priming," a phenomenon referring to the nasal response to allergens, explains Dr. Marks-Cogan. Basically, higher temps can cause pollen to become more potent, aka more allergenic, therefore prolonging allergy symptoms, she says.

The Most Common Allergens Broken Down By Season

Spring allergy symptoms typically start around the end of March or the beginning of April. These types of allergies are classified as "tree" allergies, with ash, birch, oak, and olive trees among the most common types churning out pollen during this time, explains Dr. Marks-Cogan. Late spring—starting in May and lasting into the summer months—is when grass allergens begin to wreak havoc, she adds. Common examples of grass allergens include Timothy (meadow grass), Johnson (grass weed), and Bermuda (turf grass).

Summer allergy symptoms start to flare up in July and typically last through August, says Dr. Marks-Cogan. During this time, look out for summer allergy symptoms caused by weed allergens like English plantain (flowering stalks often found sprouting up on lawns, in fields, and in between the cracks of pavement) and sagebrush (an aromatic shrub growing in cold deserts and mountainous areas), she adds.

After the summer, late fall marks the start of ragweed allergy season, explains Dr. Marks-Cogan. Ragweed allergy symptoms usually begin in August and continue throughout November, she says. (Here's your foolproof guide to outsmarting fall allergy symptoms.)

Last but not least, winter allergies are most commonly caused by indoor allergens like dust mites, pet/animal dander, cockroach allergens, and mold spores, explains Dr. Marks-Cogan. Technically these allergens can affect you year-round, but most people struggle with them during the winter months because they're spending so much time inside and getting less fresh air, she says.

The Most Common Allergy Symptoms

Allergens can cause a range of symptoms, from allergic rhinitis symptoms—similar to the signs and symptoms of a cold—to asthmatic (breathing-related) symptoms and swelling. Here are the most common allergy symptoms you might experience:

Allergic Rhinitis Symptoms:

  • Runny nose
  • Stuffy nose
  • Itchy nose
  • Sneezing
  • Watery/itchy eyes
  • Post-nasal drip
  • Cough
  • Fatigue
  • Swollen under eyes

Asthmatic Symptoms:

  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness
  • Shortness of breath

Other Potential Allergy Symptoms:

  • Hives
  • Swelling of body parts like eyelids

Diagnosing Allergy Symptoms

Technically an ~official~ allergy diagnosis involves an extremely thorough look at your medical history, followed by a series of tests, says Purvi Parikh, M.D., an allergist with Allergy & Asthma Network. But keep in mind: It is possible to test positive for a certain allergen and never experience allergy symptoms associated with that allergen, at least to your knowledge, notes Dr. Parikh. Meaning, it's up to your allergist to be a "detective," so to speak, who can "put all of the clues of the patient's story together," adds Dr. Marks-Cogan.

Once your allergist has taken down your history, they'll perform an in-office skin prick test (also known as a scratch test) to confirm whether you have seasonal allergies, explains Dr. Marks-Cogan. This test involves gently scratching the skin and delivering a drop of common allergens to see which ones (if any) cause a reaction in your body, she says. In some cases, an allergist might give you an intradermal skin test, in which case an allergen is injected under the skin and the site is monitored for a reaction, adds Dr. Marks-Cogan. If for some reason, skin testing can't be performed, a blood test may also be an option, she explains. (Related: 5 Signs You Might Be Allergic to Alcohol)

It's also worth noting that because common allergy symptoms tend to overlap with common cold symptoms, people sometimes confuse the two. However, there are a few key differences that will help you identify what are cold vs allergy symptoms. For starters, a cold typically won't last more than two weeks, whereas allergy symptoms can last weeks, months, even year-round for some, explains Dr. Marks-Cogan. What's more, colds can cause fevers, body aches, and a sore throat, while the most prominent allergy symptoms are sneezing and itching, she adds.

Treating Allergy Symptoms

When you're in the thick of allergy symptoms like itchiness and congestion, it can feel like allergy season will never end (and unfortunately for some, it really doesn't). The good news is, relief is possible through measures of avoidance, controlling what you can in your environment, allergy medicine, and more. The first step is to identify your allergy symptoms; the second is to act accordingly.

For example, if you're experiencing eye allergy symptoms—itchiness, dry eye, etc.—antihistamine eye drops are effective, suggests Dr. Parikh. Nasal steroid sprays or nasal antihistamine sprays, on the other hand, can help reduce allergy symptoms like swelling and mucus build-up, she explains. Asthma patients might be prescribed inhalers and/or injectable medications, she adds. (Here's how probiotics can help with certain seasonal allergies, too.)

There are also plenty of damage-control tactics you can use to avoid allergy symptoms in your living space. For instance, if you struggle with pollen allergy symptoms, Dr. Marks-Cogan suggests keeping your windows closed when pollen levels are highest: during the evenings in the spring and summer, and in the mornings during the late summer and early fall.

Another easy way to avoid bringing outdoor allergens inside: Change your clothes as soon as you get home, throw them in the laundry, and hop in the shower, especially before bed, suggests Dr. Marks-Cogan. "Pollen is sticky," she explains. "It can stick to hair and then your pillow which means you'd be breathing it in all night."

Bottom line: Allergy symptoms are annoying, but with the right approach, they can be tolerable. If you're still struggling with allergy symptoms, don't hesitate to reach out to your doctor to discuss the best ways to treat your specific allergies.

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