Some people love spring and summer: Blooming flowers, warm sunshine and chirping birds are a welcome arrival for many people after the dark and cold winter months. For about 8% of American adults, though, the change of seasons spells misery.
Those 20 million people deal with allergic rhinitis, or seasonal allergies, a condition caused when your immune system reacts to something in the environment. In most cases, that something is pollen from trees, grasses and weeds.
Commonly called hay fever, seasonal allergies actually have nothing to do with hay or fevers. That misnomer comes from a long-gone era when symptoms would strike during hay harvests in late summer and early fall, before medical professionals knew what allergies were.
Think you might have seasonal allergies? See how your symptoms match up against these four big signs.
1. You've got all the typical symptoms
If you think of sneezing, wheezing and watery eyes when you think of seasonal allergies, you'd be on the right track. There's a good chance you have seasonal allergies if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- Frequent sneezing
- Watery or itchy eyes
- Runny nose
- Congestion in your nose, ears or chest
- Postnasal drip
- Itchy throat
- Puffy eyelids
2. You have these less common symptoms
The symptoms above are extremely common, but your allergies might show up in a different way. These less common, but still bona fide, symptoms may indicate seasonal allergies:
- Sudden lack of exercise endurance
- Mild headache
3. You don't have these symptoms
Colds and allergies share many of the same symptoms, so it can be tough to tell which one you're going through. Because they share symptoms -- such as coughing and congestion -- it's helpful to consider the symptoms that these two conditions don't share.
If you're experiencing any of these symptoms, there's a good chance you have a cold:
- Aches and pains throughout your body
- Severe headache
- Sore throat (different from the itchiness caused by allergies)
Another way to tell the difference between a cold and allergies is the duration of your symptoms. Colds usually go away on their own in seven to 10 days, whereas allergies persist until they're treated or until the trigger is gone -- which can take months depending on what you are allergic to.
4. Your symptoms only show up at certain times
If you have seasonal allergies, your symptoms should arise and go away around the same time each year. For most people, seasonal allergy symptoms begin in the spring and end in the fall. However, depending on your allergy triggers, you may experience allergic rhinitis in any of the four seasons. Here's a rundown of plants that commonly cause seasonal allergies:
Spring: Tree pollen, particularly that from oak, elm, birch, cedar, willow, poplar, horse chestnut and alder trees.
Summer: Grasses, such as ryegrass, Kentucky bluegrass, Timothy grass, Bermuda grass and more.
Fall: Pollen from weeds is the main concern in the fall months. Many people are allergic to the pollen in ragweed, tumbleweed, pigweed, sagebrush, Russian thistle and more.
Winter: Most people find that their allergies go dormant during the winter months because most plants don't pollinate during winter. If you still get watery eyes and a runny nose during cold weather, you might be allergic to indoor allergens, such as dust mites, mold or pet dander.
How to treat seasonal allergies
In most cases, an over-the-counter antihistamine and decongestant will do the trick. If you have severe allergies, however, your doctor may prescribe nasal steroid spray or allergy shots to dampen symptoms.
It's always a good idea to try your best to avoid your triggers, but that doesn't mean you have to hole up inside with a box of tissues. To get less exposure to your allergens:
- Keep your windows shut when your allergies are active
- Use an air purifier if you're sensitive to indoor allergens
- Wear a dust mask while doing yard work
- Check your local weather network for pollen forecasts
- Take a shower and wash your hair at the end of each day to get rid of pollen that attached to your clothes, hair and skin
I think I have an allergy, but I'm not sure…
Generally, if you experience any combination of the typical symptoms -- watery eyes, runny nose, sneezing, etc. -- you can safely conclude that you're allergic to something.
If you don't know what that something is and you want to find out, your primary care doctor can refer you to an allergist. Allergists conduct skin or blood tests to determine what substances you're allergic to.
The thing is, most people exhibit the same symptoms regardless of the allergen, because allergic rhinitis is a condition with symptoms independent of triggers. So if your allergies aren't severe, then you're probably OK to take an over-the-counter allergy pill and not worry about it. If your allergies are severe, though, you might benefit from an allergy test so you can actively avoid your triggers.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.