While this time of year usually brings cheerful weather and the growth of beautiful plants, millions of people will be gearing up once again to do battle with a problem that recurs every year. Itchy eyes, repetitive sneezing, a permanently runny nose - the symptoms of seasonal allergies.
For many people, the emergence of marauding ticks at this time of year is the least of their worries. The real struggle for these people is with seasonal allergies, also referred to as hay fever or allergic rhinitis.
If these common symptoms seem to develop for weeks and months on end at the same time each year, it is likely that you could be affected by seasonal allergies. The condition affects many in the US; in 2010, around 11.1 million visits to physicians' offices led to a primary diagnosis of hay fever.
Thankfully, despite how infuriating and disruptive seasonal allergies can be, there are many steps that can be taken to lessen their impact. In this Spotlight, we take a look at what seasonal allergies are and what the best strategies are for handling them.
What causes such allergies?
People develop allergies when their body's immune system reacts to a substance as though it is a threat like an infection, producing antibodies to fight it. These substances are referred to as allergens.
The next time that the body encounters the allergen, it produces more antibodies in anticipation, releasing histamine and chemical mediators in the body that lead to an allergic reaction. It is these chemicals that typically cause symptoms in the nose, throat, eyes and other areas of the body.
Jan Batten, a British Lung Foundation (BLF) Helpline nurse, explained to Medical News Today that as the summer months approach, certain allergies begin to cause more problems, such as allergies to flower pollen, grass pollen, tree molds and fungi. The drier days around this time of year help the allergens to remain in the atmosphere for longer.
"Summer allergies start to pick up around May and those affected will usually get itchy and runny eyes, a runny nose and inflamed, swollen sinuses. Breathing through your nose can be difficult too, and you might have a cough," she explained.
The American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI) report that allergies are the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the US. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI), around 7.8% of people aged 18 and above have hay fever. Worldwide, the condition affects 10-30% of the population.
Most people with hay fever understand that their symptoms are set off by pollen, the fine powder released from flowering plants in order to reproduce. Pollens are spread by the wind and can be inhaled or land in the eyes or on the skin.
The most common trigger of seasonal allergies is pollen, though they can also be triggered by grasses and mold. Dealing with seasonal allergies, however, is not merely a matter of knowing when these airborne allergens are most prevalent and trying to avoid them. There are a few added complications to keep you on your toes.
Avoiding triggers - be aware of what sets you off
"People focus on the highs and lows of pollen counts," says Dr. James Sublett, president of ACAAI. "What they don't realize is that a high total pollen count doesn't always mean you will have allergy symptoms. The pollen from the plant you are allergic to may not be high. The key is to know what you're allergic to, and how to treat your particular symptoms."
Different kinds of pollen are prevalent at different times of the year, as well as varying from location to location. Between January and April, pollen is typically released from trees including pine, ash, birch, elm and poplar. During the summer months, grass pollens dominate, and in the fall, weed pollen is most prevalent.
People can determine whether they have an allergy or not by consulting their primary care physician and undergoing allergy testing. Dr. Andrew S. Kim, an allergist from the Allergy & Asthma Centers in Fairfax and Fredericksburg, VA, told MNT that sometimes people confuse having allergies with the flu or common cold.
"Allergies may share some similarities with sneezing and sniffling but the length of time is a big difference. Allergy symptoms usually last for weeks and months and patients typically complain of itchy nose, throat and eyes as well," he said.
"Allergy patients usually do not have fever. They do have dry cough and clear nasal drainage versus infectious cough which is characterized by yellow, or greenish nasal drainage. Some people may have asthma symptoms, such as cough, wheeze and chest tightness."
Once an individual knows that they have a seasonal allergy and is aware of what triggers it, they are in a much better position to avoid debilitating allergic reactions. Keeping track of pollen forecasts is a good place to start. It is good to remember that these change by the hour, and can be boosted when it is warm, dry and windy.
To reduce the chances of an allergic reaction, it is recommended that you stay inside when pollen counts are at their highest. These usually peak around the morning hours and maintain high levels during the afternoon.
If you do need to go outside, there are a number of steps that can be taken to reduce the chances of coming into contact with allergens. Wearing wraparound sunglasses offers protection to the eyes, and applying a small amount of petroleum jelly to the insides of the nostrils can prevent some allergens from reaching the sensitive lining of the nose.
Delegating outdoor chores to people that do not have seasonal allergies is a sensible approach. If there is no escaping lawn mowing or weed pulling, however, wear an NIOSH-rated (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) 95 filter mask to keep allergens out.
Laundry should not be hung to dry outside, despite the conditions being perfect for it. Pollen can stick to sheets and towels and be brought into the home - normally a haven from pollens. In fact, when tackling seasonal allergies, ensuring that your home is your castle is a great strategy.
Minimizing the risk indoors
It is impossible to remove all allergens from the air inside the home, but there are certainly steps that can help reduce levels of exposure. Keeping the windows shut is a simple strategy that should be one of the first to be adopted.
Shutting the windows might be the last thing on your mind when temperatures start to rise. To stay cool without the threat of pollen looming large, use air conditioning in the house and car. It is preferable that high-efficiency air filters are used and that units follow regular maintenance schedules.
Whenever you venture outside, there is the chance that you will bring pollen back inside with you on your clothes and hair. For this reason, people should wash their hair and clothes more regularly during periods when the pollen count is high.
If you are drying clothes indoors and keeping the windows closed, you may need to use a dehumidifier to keep the indoor air dry. Keeping the air dry indoors helps prevent the growth of other allergens such as molds.
Keeping the home clean with a vacuum cleaner that has a high-efficiency particulate air filter and using a damp duster to stop pollens moving about the home also helps to clean up any allergens that are present, reducing the chances of them getting onto and into the body.
"Simple changes like wearing wraparound sunglasses, washing your clothes and hair more regularly, keeping your home clean, avoiding open, grassy spaces where possible and keeping your windows shut can help lessen the effect of summer allergies," Jan Batten told MNT.
All of these measures are relatively simple to take and can go a long way toward protecting the body from seasonal allergies. However, as stated before, it is nigh-on impossible to completely avoid exposure to allergens. Particularly for people who experience severe reactions to pollen, the best route to ease symptoms is often a medical one.
Medicine and other treatment
People tend to have unique allergic responses, so the treatment that works best for each individual will vary accordingly. While some people will be able to cope with seasonal allergies with over-the-counter medication and being careful about their exposure to allergens, others may require personal treatment plans drawn up by specially trained allergists.
There is a wide range of nonprescription medication available for people who have seasonal allergies. Oral antihistamines relieve symptoms such as sneezing, itching and runny noses. Decongestants relieve nasal stuffiness and come in both oral and nasal form. Some medications contain a combination of the two.
Two types of immunotherapy are available to those who require relief from severe symptoms. These are allergy shots and tablets, and they are provided and prescribed by allergists. Allergy testing will need to be carried out first to determine precisely what allergens trigger symptoms.
Allergy shots consist of injecting a patient with diluted extracts of an allergen. Increasing doses are administered until a maintenance dose is established. This process helps the body to build up a form of resistance to the allergen and reduces the severity of symptoms.
Tablets can currently be used to treat allergies to grass and ragweed pollens. Beginning at least 3 months before the relevant pollen season begins, patients take one tablet daily, with the treatment continuing for as long as 3 years.
Dr. Kim told MNT that one of the best ways to reduce the influence of seasonal allergies is to start taking medication - such as topical nasal steroids - about a week before the beginning of the allergy season:
"Don't wait until symptoms kick in and you're already feeling bad before taking allergy medication. Instead, prepare by taking medications just before the season starts to minimize the symptoms of seasonal allergies."
A number of alternative treatments are also available, including natural remedies that feature extracts of butterbur and spirulina. It is recommended that any use of alternative treatments is discussed with a physician first, as some remedies may not be entirely safe for use.
There are many options for alleviating seasonal allergies
Allergies can be worrying, especially for people who are otherwise healthy and unused to experiencing sudden debilitating symptoms. If left unchecked, seasonal allergies can often turn an otherwise enjoyable time of year for many into misery.
Thankfully, there are many routes available for people with seasonal allergies to alleviate their symptoms. As ever, if there are any concerns or worries, it is best to speak with a health care professional who will be able to offer advice, provide treatment or refer on to a specialist.
Although there is no cure at present for seasonal allergies, the multiple options for treatment should hopefully provide some relief until winter rolls around again and we can shiver together, happy in the fact that pollen has gone for another year.