For millions of people, spring is the season of itchy eyes, runny noses, sneezing, and inflamed sinuses. In 2018 alone, doctors diagnosed more than 19 million American adults with hay fever — another term for allergic rhinitis or seasonal allergies. Estimates from the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America suggest more than 50 million Americans deal with various allergies each year.
Allergies are so pervasive that the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology says they’re the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the U.S., costing the country $18 billion in annual healthcare costs.
Even if you didn’t suffer from allergies as a kid, you’re not necessarily immune. Allergies can develop at any age, and adult-onset allergies are on the rise. Here’s a closer look at why allergies could crop up, plus some tips for how to prevent and treat allergies and their symptoms.
Why Some People Get Seasonal Allergies
Allergies can appear at any age and may stem from many possible causes.
- Prolonged and severe pollen seasons
- Environmental pollution
- Changes in the body’s immune system, which is always evolving
- Latent allergies that become more severe as time goes on
No matter the source of an allergy, the allergic response is the same. An allergy occurs when a person’s immune system encounters a substance (such as pollen or mold) that it perceives as a threat or infection. Every time it contacts this substance, the immune system produces antibodies to fight off the perceived interloper. In the process, the body releases histamine and other chemicals, which provoke the symptoms associated with allergies.
The Difference between Seasonal Allergies and the Common Cold
No matter the cause of seasonal allergies, they often manifest in similar ways as the common cold — think sneezing, stuffy nose, and sinus inflammation. So how can you tell whether you have a contagious illness or everyday allergies?
When you first notice your symptoms, you may not be able to distinguish allergies from a cold. But as time goes on, some differences usually emerge.
- Allergies typically last longer than colds. The typical duration of a cold is around three to 10 days, while allergy symptoms usually persist for weeks at a time.
- Colds can provoke body aches, sore throats, or fevers, but these symptoms aren’t associated with allergies. If you feel achy or feverish or have a sore throat, you probably have a cold or another viral or bacterial illness.
- If your symptoms reappear regularly or seem linked to specific triggers, allergies are probably causing them.
- Eye irritation is more likely to be a sign of allergies (though colds occasionally cause this symptom too).
- The mucus your body produces in response to allergies tends to be clear and watery, while mucus produced by a cold is usually thicker and darker (think yellow or green).
How to Prevent Seasonal Allergies
If you don’t want to join the millions of people dealing with allergy symptoms each year, consider these prevention tips.
Avoid or minimize exposure to pollen and other allergens.
The most effective way to avoid a flare-up of allergies is to know your triggers and avoid them as much as possible. For instance, if you’re allergic to pollen, spend more time indoors when the plants you’re allergic to are in bloom. If you’re allergic to mold, dehumidify and sanitize your living space.
Get plenty of sleep.
Poor sleep can exacerbate allergy symptoms. Practice good sleep hygiene and aim for seven to nine hours of sleep each night. The painful irony here is that allergy symptoms can make it harder to fall and stay asleep. The treatment options in the next section can help.
Avoid dairy and gluten.
If you’re sensitive to dairy and/or gluten, you may want to avoid these products. (Symptoms of dairy sensitivity include runny nose, watery eyes, loose stools, and abdominal cramps, while symptoms of gluten sensitivity range from bloating and abdominal pain to headaches and brain fog.) Both dairy and gluten can trigger an inflammatory response in the bodies of people who are sensitive to these products, which exacerbates the inflammation caused by allergies.
Cut back on alcohol.
Like dairy and gluten, alcohol has inflammatory properties. To reduce inflammation that could exacerbate allergy symptoms, minimize your alcohol intake, or avoid it entirely.
Rinse your nasal passages.
Use a neti pot or nasal irrigation device to rinse your nasal passages with a sterile saline solution. This practice relieves nasal congestion by removing allergens and mucus. If you’ve encountered an allergen, a quick nasal rinse could prevent a major flare.
Treatments for Seasonal Allergies
If preventative measures don’t work and you experience an allergy flare, then it may be time to try various treatment options.
A small 2018 study suggests aerobic exercise can help reduce allergic rhinitis symptoms, likely because exercise enhances immune system function.
Herbs and supplements
An over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamine can help ease sneezing, itchiness, runny nose, and watery eyes. An antihistamine works by inhibiting the body’s production of histamine. Because histamine is responsible for many of the symptoms associated with allergies (runny nose, watery eyes, and so on), impeding your body’s histamine production can lessen your symptoms.
As the name suggests, these OTC products help relieve nasal congestion. Decongestants can take the form of oral tablets or nasal sprays. In either case, they work by minimizing the swelling of blood vessels in the nose, which opens the airways and makes it easier to breathe. (Note that using nasal sprays for more than a few days can cause a rebound effect that makes congestion worse.)
Combination allergy medications
These OTC products combine an antihistamine with a decongestant to neutralize most allergy symptoms.
Prescription or OTC eye drops can help relieve allergy symptoms that affect your eyes, including redness, itchiness, or a burning sensation. Different types of eye drops work well for different symptoms; do some research to determine which kind of eyedrops will work best for you.
If over-the-counter medications don’t ease your allergy symptoms, your doctor may recommend allergy shots to train your immune system to address the allergen in a more manageable way. You’ll receive a series of injections consisting of increasingly large amounts of the allergen in question.
Allergies can be a pain, but you don’t have to grit your teeth and ride out an allergy flair. Prevention strategies can help you avoid or minimize allergic reactions, and a variety of lifestyle changes and natural and OTC products can help you manage allergy symptoms.
Talk to your doctor if prevention strategies don’t give you relief, your symptoms become more severe, or you want to try OTC medications and supplements. Your doctor will assess your medical history and medications to help determine which treatments are safest for you. With a little effort, you should be able to manage your seasonal allergies so they don’t control you.
By Laura Newcomer
Laura Newcomer is a writer, editor, and educator with several years of experience working in the health and wellness space. Formerly Senior Editor at the health site Greatist, Laura is now a professional freelance writer and editor based in Pennsylvania. Her writing has been published on Washington Post, TIME Healthland, Greatist, DailyBurn, Lifehacker, and Business Insider, among others. She's covered a wide variety of topics related to sex and relationships, from open relationships, to the pros and cons of being "friends with benefits," to sex positivity. A former counselor for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, she is a strong advocate for cultivating healthy and fulfilling relationships and sexuality at every age.