Spring allergies aren't the only seasonal allergies that can wreak havoc on your sinuses.

By Rebecca Norris
March 30, 2020
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The world may be pretty divisive at times, but most people can agree: Allergy season is a pain in the butt. From incessant sniffling and sneezing to itchy, watery eyes and a never-ending build-up of mucus, allergy season is quite possibly the most uncomfortable time of year for the 50 million Americans who deal with its effects.

What's more, climate change has been making allergy season worse with each passing year, says Clifford Bassett, M.D., allergist, author, clinical assistant professor of medicine at NYU, and founder and medical director of Allergy & Asthma Care of NY. Higher temperatures outside lead to longer pollen seasons and, as a whole, an earlier start to spring, he explains. That means this year (and every year hereafter) could easily be "the worst allergy season yet," he says. Oye.

But it's not just the spring you have to worry about. Depending on what you're allergic to, allergy season could very well last year-round.

Fortunately, there are ways to get ahead of and manage your seasonal allergy symptoms—namely, knowing what causes your seasonal allergies, the timing of each different allergy season, and stocking up on the best seasonal allergy medicine for your symptoms.

What causes seasonal allergies?

While some seasonal allergies are more common than others, the cause of seasonal allergies varies from person to person.

In general, though, seasonal allergies (also referred to as hay fever and allergic rhinitis) happen when you're exposed to an airborne substance (such as pollen) that your body is sensitive (or allergic) to and that only appears during certain times of the year, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology.

Regardless of the cause or timing of seasonal allergies, seasonal allergy symptoms across the board can include clear, thin mucus; nasal congestion; post-nasal drip; sneezing; itchy, watery eyes; itchy nose; and runny nose, says Peter VanZile, Pharm.D., director of country medical affairs at GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare. Fun. (Related: 4 Surprising Things That Are Affecting Your Allergies)

When does allergy season start?

Technically, it's always allergy season; the exact timing of your allergy symptoms just depends on what you're allergic to.

On the one hand, there are seasonal allergies which, as you can tell by the name, happen during specific times of the year.

From late winter (February and March) to late spring (April and early May), tree pollen—typically from ash, birch, oak, and olive trees—tends to be the most common allergen, explains Dr. Bassett. Grass pollen (most commonly, meadow grass, grass weed, and turf grass) can also cause seasonal allergies from early to mid-spring (April and early May) through most of the summer, he adds. (But remember: Global warming can affect the timing of spring allergies, as can your location and region of the country, notes Dr. Bassett.)

Summer allergies are a thing too, BTW. Weed allergens like English plantain (those flowering stalks you see on lawns and in between pavement cracks) and sagebrush (commonly found in cold deserts and mountainous areas) usually start to flare up in July and typically last through August, Katie Marks-Cogan, M.D., co-founder and chief allergist for Ready, Set, Food!, previously told Shape.

If you think that means fall and winter are off the hook, think again. Starting in August and continuing through November, ragweed allergens take the autumn season by storm, explains Dr. Bassett.

As for winter allergies, they're most commonly caused by indoor allergens like dust mites, pet/animal dander, cockroach allergens, and mold spores, explained Dr. Marks-Cogan. These allergens are also considered perennial, or year-round allergies, since they're technically present all the time; you just tend to experience them more in the winter because that's when you're spending a lot of time inside, said Dr. Marks-Cogan.

So, when does allergy season end, you ask? For some, it never ends, thanks to those pesky perennial allergens.

When should I start taking seasonal allergy medicine?

You might normally take medicine for, say, a headache once you actually start to feel the pain. But when it comes to seasonal allergies treatment, it's best to start taking medicine early, before allergy symptoms even begin (think: late winter for spring allergies and late summer for fall allergies), says Dr. Bassett.

"Seasonal allergies, specifically, are a condition whereby individual modifications and timely treatment can make a huge difference in reducing and/or possibly preventing allergy misery," he explains.

For example, nasal priming—in which you use a nasal spray like Flonase a couple of weeks before allergy symptoms begin—can be an effective way to reduce the severity of nasal congestion, specifically, suggests Dr. Bassett.

The best seasonal allergy medicine for other allergy symptoms, like itchy eyes, sneezing, runny nose, and skin sensitivity, is an antihistamine, says Dr. Bassett. Pro tip: Make sure you know the difference between first-generation and second-generation antihistamines. The former includes medicine that can make you super drowsy and confused, like Benadryl. Second-generation antihistamines (like Allegra and Zyrtec) are just as potent as their first-generation counterparts, but they don't cause those drowsy side effects, according to Harvard Health.

Much like nasal sprays, antihistamines will be most effective if you start using them several days, or even a couple of weeks before your allergy symptoms officially start, notes Dr. Bassett. (BTW, here's how allergy meds could be affecting your post-workout recovery.)

If traditional seasonal allergies treatments aren't working for you, allergy shots could be another option for long-term relief, says Anita N. Wasan, M.D., an allergist and the owner of Allergy and Asthma Center in McLean, Virginia. Allergy shots work by exposing you to small, gradually-increasing amounts of allergens over time so your body can build a tolerance, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (AAAAI).

But there are some caveats to allergy shots. For one thing, you might have an allergic reaction to the shot itself since, after all, it contains substances you're allergic to. Usually, the reaction (if you experience one at all) is minor—swelling, redness, itching, sneezing, and/or runny nose—though in rare cases, anaphylactic shock is also possible, according to the AAAAI.

Aside from possible allergic reactions, the process itself of receiving allergy shots can be long-winded. Since the goal is to inject small, safe amounts of allergens during each session, the process can take years of weekly or monthly shots to help build your tolerance, explains Dr. Wasan. Of course, only you and your doctor can decide if that kind of time commitment is worth ditching traditional allergy medicine.

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