Your summertime sniffles may not be a cold after all. Here, an immunologist gives the DL on summer allergies, including how to stop them from occurring in the first place.

By Megan Falk
June 07, 2021
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After spending the entire spring season attempting to hold in coughs during Zoom calls and dealing with watery eyes that made it look like you were just sobbing, you're probably thinking summer will finally bring much-needed relief from your pesky allergies.

Hate to break it to you, but you may not be out of the woods just because of the season change.

"Summer allergies are fairly common," says Purvi Parikh, M.D., an adult and pediatric allergist and immunologist with Allergy & Asthma Network. "They're not as common as spring and fall, but people don't realize that there's pollen in the air in the summertime too." And all that pollen - plus a few other indoor triggers - can make you feel like hell.

Thankfully, you're not totally SOL if you suffer from summer allergies. Here, Dr. Parikh breaks down the causes and symptoms of summer allergies, plus treatment options that will help you get rid of those sneezes, etc. for good.

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Credit: AdobeStock

Summer Allergy Causes

Before learning the specific triggers for summer allergies, here's a quick refresher on what seasonal allergies are in the first place. Generally, seasonal allergies occur when you're exposed to a typically harmless foreign substance (think: pollen) and your immune system mistakenly identifies it as a threat. In response, your body will release certain chemicals that can cause symptoms in the nose (aka hay fever or allergic rhinitis) or inflammation of the eye lining (aka allergic conjunctivitis), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The result: sneezing, runny nose, congestion, and/or red, watery, or itchy eyes, per the CDC.

The exact allergen triggering these irritating reactions varies from month to month and person to person, says Dr. Parikh. There's still some residual grass pollen (a common spring pollen) from varieties including Bermuda Grass, Johnson Grass, and Kentucky Bluegrass floating through the air throughout May and June; weed pollen from plants such as sagebrush, pigweed, and tumbleweed disperses later in the summer; and ragweed pollen (a major fall pollen) begins to enter the air as early as August or September, she explains. Not everyone will be allergic to these pollens, but you're more likely to have a sneezy summer if you have other seasonal allergies, you suffer from asthma, or you have one parent with an allergy, says Dr. Parikh. (Related: When Does Allergy Season Actually Start?)

But pollen isn't the only potential source of your summer allergies. "People always forget that there's still year-round, indoor allergens, such as dust mites, mold, and animal dander," says Dr. Parikh. "I would argue, depending on where you are, some of those things might be worse in the summer: Dust mites and mold thrive off of humidity, and some places can get quite humid in the summertime."

Summer Allergy Symptoms

Your summer allergy symptoms will probably present exactly the same as your spring allergies, if you suffer from them, says Dr. Parikh. You might have itchy, watery eyes; a stuffy nose; a sore throat; itchy ears; eczema, hives, or rashes on your skin; and even asthma attacks if you're prone to that, she explains. The symptoms really depend on the person since no two people react the same way, says Dr. Parikh. "One person could just be having itchy, watery eyes whereas another could be having nasal congestion," she explains.

With symptoms that look pretty darn similar to a standard cold, it can be difficult to differentiate between the two, says Dr. Parikh. But there are a few key factors that set summer allergies apart from a classic cold. "Usually colds and viruses will have a temperature over 100.4°F, whereas that doesn't happen typically with allergies," she says. "Allergies tend to have more itchy symptoms - itchy eyes, throat, ears - whereas with a cold, it might be only congestion and pain… and some stomach issues such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and loss of taste and smell." You can also distinguish between a cold and summer allergies based on the amount of time you're sick: A cold or virus will probably put you out for three to five days, while summer allergies may have you sneezing for weeks on end, says Dr. Parikh.

Summer Allergy Treatments

When you wake up with itchy, crusty eyelids and a cough that won't quit, Dr. Parikh suggests treating your summer allergies with an over-the-counter, 24-hour antihistamine tablet, such as Zyrtec (Buy It, $33, amazon.com), Claritin (Buy It, $31, amazon.com), or Allegra (Buy It, $24, amazon.com), which cause less drowsiness than others on the market. She also recommends over-the-counter nasal sprays, such as Flonase (Buy It, $11, amazon.com) or Nasacort (Buy It, $12, amazon.com), which block the release of the chemicals that cause sneezing; runny, stuffy, or itchy nose; and itchy, watery eyes. "But if you're not getting better [after those treatments], speak to a physician to get on the appropriate treatment," she adds. (Related: You Might Want to Hold Off On Taking Those Allergy Meds Before Breaking a Sweat)

Those antihistamines are your best bet for relieving symptoms, but for those who want to go a more holistic route, home remedies such as steam inhalation and neti pot washes can help open up your sinuses and ease your summer allergy symptoms. Just know that neither of these methods will permanently stop your symptoms from returning, says Dr. Parikh. "These are just temporary measures and the symptoms will just keep coming back," she explains. "If they work in the short term, then great, but if it's not really helping or you're having any breathing symptoms, I wouldn't do a home remedy." (FWIW, you can take antihistamines daily to help keep symptoms under control, according to the National Library of Medicine, but the medications won't cure your allergy.)

When your summer allergies are affecting your breathing - causing uncontrollable coughing, wheezing, or chest tightness - visit your doctor ASAP, says Dr. Parikh. "Ten people die of asthma on a daily basis, so I wouldn't take it lightly if you're having any coughing or wheezing," she explains. Even if your symptoms aren't so severe, you should still chat with your doc if your allergies aren't improving with any over-the-counter treatments, she adds

How to Prevent Summer Allergy Symptoms

Thankfully, you don't have to spend every day at the beach dealing with watery eyes and phlegm. To prevent your summer allergies from ruining the season, Dr. Parikh recommends booking an appointment with an allergist to go over your summer allergy symptoms and come up with a treatment and management plan, such as the use of controller medicines, which prevent breathing symptoms in folks who have asthma. "The key is starting [management tactics] early before everything flares up," she says. "So if you know you're prone to allergies in summer, it's good to be proactive with it ahead of time."

It's also beneficial to reduce your contact with allergens. Summer allergy symptoms are "dose-dependent," meaning the greater the exposure, the worse the side effects, says Dr. Parikh. "If you're outside more, especially in the early morning which is when the pollen counts are typically the highest in the U.S., you'll probably suffer more than if you're spending your summer inside indoors," she explains. To keep your symptoms to a minimum, avoid heading outside for a run and opening your windows up in the early morning and chat with your doc to figure out your triggers and other ways to curb your exposure, says Dr. Parikh. 

If your summer allergies are triggered by indoor allergens, invest in dust mite covers for your mattress (Buy It, $27, amazon.com), box spring (Buy It, $40, amazon.com), and pillows (Buy It, $20, amazon.com), which will create a barrier between you and the mites, minimizing your exposure, says Dr. Parikh. Vacuuming your carpets and rugs frequently and using a dehumidifier-air purifier combo can also help reduce the amount of dust mites, minimize their growth, and lessen the amount of mold and animal dander (other common allergens) in the room, she explains. 

To relieve your summer allergies over the long run, though, consider trying immunotherapy, which involves an allergist injecting you with tiny, dilute doses of your allergen to "desensitize" you to it and resolve the root cause, says Dr. Parikh. For the first six months, your doctor will inject you with the allergen weekly, then you'll receive the shots monthly for two years, she explains. "It's kind of like going to the gym for your immune system - you're slowly conditioning it to stop being allergic to these things," she says. "And some people start feeling better in the first three to six months." Considering the treatment could put an end to your summertime sniffles, itchy peepers, and coughing fits for good, it's well-worth a few needle pokes.