Seasonal Allergies

1 Seasonal Allergies Summary

Seasonal allergies, also known as seasonal allergic rhinitis or hay fever, are common allergic reactions that occur during specific seasons. It is an exaggerated response of the immune system to an allergen, often present in the outside environment.

These allergies occur during certain seasons and are more common during spring, summer, and fall. The time when they are triggered depends on the season in which the specific irritant is present. In contrast to the name, seasonal allergies are usually a reaction to pollen and grasses. The pollen that causes the allergic reaction may vary with the seasons.

Freshly cut grass, flowers, or blooming trees all release pollen, causing allergies in an estimated sixty million people each year. Every flower, tree, and weed releases pollen, but not everyone has a heightened sensitivity or allergic reaction to them. Hence, it is very important that one pay attention and identify what is triggering the allergic symptoms in the first place.

If the symptoms, or the condition entirely, are left untreated, they can turn miserable for the individual and start affecting day-to-day activities; in severe cases, they can spur on asthma attacks.

Signs and symptoms of seasonal allergies include:

  • Nasal congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Watery, itchy, and/or red eyes
  • Cough
  • Itching on the roof of the mouth
  • Blue color in the skin under the eyes
  • Postnasal drip
  • Fatigue
  • Excess mucus production
  • Constantly scratchy throat
  • Tickling sensation in the ears
  • Loss of concentration
  • Lack of focus, which leads to a decrease in activity
  • Sudden mood changes
  • Insomnia
  • Low blood pressure
  • Eczema
  • Hives
  • Ear infections

The most common symptoms of allergies are itchy eyes, runny nose, and nasal congestion. Itching of the eyes is a very rare symptom in a common cold, while a runny nose and nasal congestion are common.

It is important to distinguish between the symptoms caused by the two conditions. The common cold is also associated with body pain and aches. Less common symptoms of seasonal allergies include a headache, shortness of breath, and wheezing.

Hay fever is caused by an exaggerated immune response to a usually harmless substance. The immune system responds to the presence of an irritant by producing more histamines and other chemicals.

These chemicals are released into the blood stream, resulting in symptoms. The triggers of an allergic reaction vary with the season. Spring time seasonal allergies are caused by trees.

Hay-cutting season in summer is a common allergy season, caused by grasses. Ragweed, seen in the fall season, also causes allergies. Cold weather is characterized by the dormancy of many outdoor allergens and irritants, so reactions are much less common.

Physical evaluation and allergy tests are the basic diagnostic steps for seasonal allergies. The most common test used in diagnosis is an allergen-specific immunoglobulin test. Symptoms and information on exposure to common allergens help confirm the diagnosis.

Skin prick tests also help identify the allergen. In this test, a small extract from sample irritants is placed on the person’s skin. The skin’s surface is then pricked with a needle. Swelling in the injected region indicates an allergic reaction.

An allergen-specific immunoglobulin (IgE) test is done when other tests are not useful in confirming a diagnosis. The IgE test is performed by drawing a sample of blood for testing and analysis.

Avoidance of allergens is the best preventive measure for seasonal allergies. Symptoms of hay fever are treated with medications. During the season in which the specific allergen is active, it is better to keep the windows shut.

Time spent outdoors should also be cut down. Over-the-counter decongestants and antihistamines are the medications that control symptoms of allergic rhinitis. Prescription steroid nasal sprays are also recommended. Immunotherapy is a method of desensitizing the immune system to specific allergens.

2 Causes

Seasonal allergies are caused by an exaggerated immune response to an allergen that is generally harmless. The immune system produces antibodies against the specific allergens.

During the next exposure to the allergen, the antibodies trigger the production of chemicals like histamines. These chemicals are responsible for the symptoms related to seasonal allergies. Triggers of seasonal allergies vary with the season.

  • Spring: Spring allergies are mostly caused by trees. The pollen of birch trees is one of the most common causes of allergies in the spring season. Other trees that lead to seasonal allergies during spring include alder, willow, poplar, horse chestnut, and cedar. Oak, elm, maple, juniper, and olive pollen may also lead to allergies.
  • Summer: Seasonal allergies are also known as hay fever, as the summer season is characterized by widespread hay-cutting in many areas. The actual causes of allergic reaction in summer are grasses like ryegrass and timothy grass. Certain weeds, like Russian thistle and English plantain, are also implicated in the development of allergies. Grasses are considered to be the most common trigger for allergic rhinitis. Other grasses like sweet vernal, Bermuda, orchard, and Johnson grass also may cause allergy symptoms in some people. 
  • Fall: Fall is characterized by the widespread growth of ragweed, a significant cause of allergy symptoms. There are more than forty species of this grass, and most are found in temperate regions. Ragweed pollen is a very common allergen that causes severe symptoms. Nettles, sorrels, fat hens, and mugworts may also cause allergic reactions during this season.
  • Winter: During the winter season, outdoor allergens are mostly dormant in nature. Thus, symptoms are relieved for those who are sensitive. But indoor allergens like pet dander, mold, and dust mites may still cause allergies.

Other plants that are known to cause an allergic reaction are sagebrush, cocklebur, burning bush, lamb’s-quarters, and pigweed.

The severity of symptoms in seasonal allergies often depends on several climatic factors. Pollen of some plants and trees are able to survive during cold nights; this may affect the intensity of characteristic symptoms.

Hot and humid conditions are conducive for the growth of mold. Morning hours are usually when symptom severity is greater, as pollen levels are high. During rain, the severity reduces as the water washes the pollen from the environment.

After the rainfall, though, the levels of pollen may increase rapidly, affecting symptoms. On a windy day, levels of airborne allergens are higher. When the wind is less or absent, these allergens may be grounded and provide relief from allergy symptoms. Pollen counts in the air are found to increase during warm, windy days.

Major risk factors for seasonal allergies are:

  • Presence of other allergies
  • Medical conditions like atopic dermatitis and asthma
  • Family history of allergies
  • Occupation involving exposure to allergens

Thus, if one has a parent or sibling with an allergy, it increases the risk of developing allergic rhinitis. A person can be allergic to more than one type of allergen in a season. Moreover, the pollen season may vary slightly in different parts of the country.

When is Allergy Season  ?

3 Diagnosis and Treatment

Symptoms of allergies follow a particular pattern and return mostly around the same time each year. This makes diagnosis of seasonal allergies easy with characteristic symptoms.

The onset of allergy symptoms occurs after exposure to the specific allergen. Diagnosis is often based on symptoms and information about their onset. The doctor looks out for characteristic symptoms of allergies during a physical examination.

The most common tests recommended for confirmation of diagnosis are:

  • Skin prick test: In this test, a small amount of the allergens is applied to a small part of the skin. The region is pricked with a needle to allow the entry of allergens into the skin. Swelling in the test area indicates an allergic reaction. These tests are usually performed by an allergy specialist. In some cases, a small amount of the allergen is injected just under the skin layer. A small lump surrounded by a reddish area in the injected region shows a positive reaction to the allergen.
  • Allergy blood test: This test is also known as radioallergosorbent test (RAST). In this test, the levels of antibodies are measured against the specific allergen in the blood. The IgE antibodies in the blood measures the immune response to an allergen, which is common during a particular season.

If the symptoms are not severe, over-the-counter medications will help relieve symptoms. Prescription medications are often used when symptoms are severe.

Commonly used allergy medications include:

  • Nasal corticosteroids: This is a prescription medication used to relieve itching and inflammation of the nose caused by allergic rhinitis. These are the first medications recommended for allergy symptoms. Fluticasone propionate, triamcinolone, mometasone, and budesonide are examples of corticosteroid medications used for allergies. They can be used long-term without many side effects.
  • Antihistamines: Antihistamines are generally used as pills, but are also available in the form of nasal sprays and eye drops. They help relieve symptoms like a runny nose, itching, and sneezing. Loratadine, cetirizine, and fexofenadine are examples of antihistamines used to control seasonal allergies.
  • Decongestants: Decongestants can be used as oral pills, nasal sprays, or liquids. The use of decongestants should be limited, as continuous use may lead to rebound congestion.
  • Cromolyn sodium: This medication prevents the release of histamines, the main cause of symptoms in seasonal allergies. It may be used as a nasal spray or eye drops.
  • Leukotriene modifier: Leukotrienes are chemicals that play a role in the development of characteristic symptoms of an allergy. Leukotriene modifiers block the action of these chemicals, thus relieving the symptoms. It is most commonly used in the treatment of allergy-induced asthma.
  • Nasal ipratropium: This medication helps reduce the production of mucus by the glands, thus relieving congestion, sneezing, and postnasal drips.
  • Oral corticosteroids: Severe allergy symptoms are sometimes treated with oral corticosteroids.

Other treatment methods used include immunotherapy, sublingual allergy tablets, and sinus rinses. Immunotherapy, or allergy shots, as they are popularly known, is a method in which one receives regular injections that desensitize the immune system to a particular allergen.

Allergy tablets are similar to shots, except they are taken as pills and help prevent an allergic reaction when exposed to the allergen.

  • Oral montelukast: Oral montelukast is a drug originally developed to treat patients with asthma. Recently, however, this medication is known as a prescription therapy for any type of allergies. Oral montelukast comes in the form of a pill with its most popular brand name called Singulair. This medicine blocks the actions caused by leukotrienes and inflammatory chemicals, which react to any type of allergens by producing mucus and tightening the airways. Studies have revealed that montelukast is an effective treatment for seasonal allergies, which typically strike people during spring when the level of pollens are the highest. A few side effects encountered with this medicine are headaches, trouble sleeping, and digestive issues. Currently, this drug is available only in generic form.
  • Supplements and herbs: Flavonoid, which is a heart-healthy chemical mostly found in tea, grapes, tomatoes, and onions, is also rich in natural anti-inflammatory properties. This helps to block the effect of histamines before they start. One can find this in a quercetin supplement. One would need to take at least 500mg of this supplement twice daily a few weeks before the allergy season begins. Butterbur is another good herb which blocks the production of leukotrienes. One can take 50mg to 75mg of this supplement twice daily to be more effective.
  • Control the environment: One can be well-prepared to fight off allergies if certain which allergy is the culprit. An allergist can conduct a skin test or a blood test to narrow down the exact allergens. This will help the individual avoid the allergens or be well-prepared for it in that particular season. For example, if one is allergic to pollen, which is quite common among people, staying indoors during the worst pollen days is advisable. Also, one should avoid early morning outdoor activity, since trees tend to pollinate in the mornings. One can also wear a face mask while doing any gardening activity or while cleaning the air in the home.

As mentioned above, corticosteroids, antihistamines, and over-the-counter medications counteract the effects of the histamines produced in the body. One should note, however, that they, too, have side effects, some of which include dryness in the eyes, mouth, or nose; abdominal discomfort; drowsiness; fatigue; lack in performance; unusual bruises or bleeding; and lack of sleep leading to insomnia.

Children can also experience side effects from the medication, such as upset stomach, nightmares, weakened cognitive function, and being overexcited all the time. These medications are not a cure for allergies, they just treat the existing symptoms. Many of these drugs or medications are not recommended for pregnant women, breastfeeding women, or individuals who suffer from high blood pressure, kidney disease, glaucoma, liver problems, or a thyroid disorder.

Below are foods that should be avoided during the allergy season:

  • Chocolate
  • Cucumbers
  • Melons
  • Sugar
  • Peanuts
  • Caffeine
  • Artificial sweeteners
  • Bananas
  • Wheat
  • Soy

Apart from the above-mentioned foods, one must also make a note of those foods which cause allergies or sensitivities and avoid them as well during the allergy season.

During the allergy season, one can enjoy certain types of foods, including those rich in probiotics, raw honey, bone broth, pineapple, hot and spicy foods, grass-fed meats, or fresh organic veggies. Bone broth made from chicken, beef, or lamb has good health benefits. It helps provide relief from respiratory problems and, at the same time, expels any excess mucus in the nasal cavity. Bone broth is known to boost the immune system and reduce inflammation in the body. Foods rich in probiotics promote a strong immune system, as well as help improve digestion and increase energy levels. One can eat probiotic foods such as yogurt, raw cheese, kimchi, or kefir. Raw, local honey is known to significantly control allergy symptoms better than conventional medications. Consume a couple tablespoons of honey every day to provide relief from a runny nose, congestion, watery eyes, and symptoms of hay fever. Pineapple is known to contain the enzyme bromelain, which has a high concentration of vitamins such as B and C, along with other essential nutrients. It helps reduce the reactions of seasonal allergies. However, be sure to eat fresh, ripe pineapples. Intake of hot, spicy foods helps thin the mucus, which can thus be more easily expelled from the body. One can try adding garlic, ginger, onion, or pepper in recipes for a spicy taste.

Below are supplements one can take during the allergy season:

  • Vitamin A
  • Quercetin
  • Zinc
  • Butterbur
  • Spirulina
  • Bromelain
  • Probiotics

Apart from avoiding certain allergy-inducing foods and adding those which are beneficial during the seasonal allergy period, one can also add high-quality natural supplements as part of the daily routine. These supplements should be started at least thirty to sixty days in advance of the upcoming allergy season for best results.

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