Allergy Causes & Symptoms
Your nose is somehow running and stuffy at the same time. You keep sneezing. Your eyes are red and puffy and you want to scratch them off your face.
You repeat, “Don’t worry, it’s just my seasonal allergies!” to all of the people who give you dirty looks as you sniffle and snort.
But, is this really just your allergies flaring up—or is something else going on?
That’s one of the many frustrating things about seasonal allergies (you know, besides the fact your nose is raw and your head feels like it’s full of concrete): Your symptoms seem to change day to day, and there’s a lot of overlap with other conditions.
Before you panic-scroll through the internet and convince yourself that you have everything from the flu to COVID-19, let’s break down some of the most common allergy symptoms. While they can vary from person to person, there are a few typical ones you should keep your (itchy, watery) eyes on the lookout for.
Allergies rear their ugly head when your body’s immune system reacts to a foreign substance—from pollen to pet dander to a food you can’t tolerate. Those are called allergens, and your body’s response is called an allergic reaction.
In the case of seasonal allergies or perennial (year-round) allergies, your body is having a reaction to something that’s found in the great outdoors. According to the National Library of Medicine, this can include:
Not everybody is allergic to all of these (unless you’re super unlucky). Pollen is among the most common seasonal allergy triggers, but that doesn’t mean it tops the list for you. Regardless of the cause, you can get your symptoms under control with the right treatment plan and a better understanding of when your allergies are at their worst.
Now that you know the potential culprits behind your misery, let’s dig into the biggest signs that you’re indeed dealing with seasonal allergies—which are also referred to as “hay fever” or “seasonal allergic rhinitis” if you’re feeling fancy.
What this feels like: Your nose is dripping like a faucet, and you’re considering purchasing stock in tissues. To make things extra frustrating, you might also somehow be experiencing nasal congestion simultaneously.
Best treatments: Oral antihistamines will block the effects of histamines. Your body produces histamines when it detects something harmful—like your seasonal allergy triggers. Additionally, a nasal steroid spray like fluticasone is the single best therapy for your dripping nose. It will shrink your sinus blood vessels and tissues that are inflamed as a result of your allergies and thus have less snot running out.
What this feels like: Your eyes are bloodshot and continuously watering—not to mention they’re so itchy it’s unfair. You’re debating putting oven mitts on your hands just to stop yourself from relentlessly rubbing and scratching at them.
Best treatments: Again, an oral antihistamine is your best bet for prevention. Antihistamine eye drops, like azelastine, can also help relieve that persistent itching and watering and typically work faster than an oral antihistamine because they get right to the source.
What this feels like: Your seasonal allergy symptoms aren’t exactly...uhh...quiet. You’re sneezing and coughing all over the place, and you can’t blame people for standing as far away from you as possible.
Best treatments: We hate to sound like a broken record but, again, a nasal steroid spray is the best at preventing the inflammation causing the sneezing and coughing. The nasal spray also makes your nose less sensitive, which can put an end to your relentless sneezing. If you’ve missed the boat on prevention though, an oral or nasal antihistamine can help reduce your body’s response to outdoor allergens. A saline nasal spray can be a soothing complement to these treatments, as it will add some moisture to your nasal passages and wash away the allergens once you’ve come inside.
What this feels like: As if seasonal allergies weren’t already fun enough, they can present some extra problems for people who have asthma. As the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology explains, seasonal allergies can trigger asthma symptoms—including wheezing and shortness of breath.
Best treatments: You already know we’re going to mention the importance of an oral antihistamine. However, people who really struggle with asthma symptoms can also benefit from an inhaled steroid or bronchodilator, which are administered through an inhaler. Your doctor will be the best person to speak to about this option.
The last thing you want is for your allergy symptoms to become even more obnoxious. The good news is that—in addition to medications—there are a few things you can do today to avoid worsening your symptoms:
Keep your windows shut: We’re all for letting in some fresh air. But, if you’re someone who deals with seasonal allergies, letting the outdoors in means you’re also letting in allergens.
Keep the pollen outside: Even when your windows are closed, pollen still finds a way to get inside. How? Through you! Make sure to change your clothes when you come inside, shower before bed (to get that pollen out of your hair), and change your pillow cases often (in case that shower didn't remove all that pollen).
Be proactive: Things like steroid nasal sprays can take up to two to four weeks of consistent use to be fully effective. So, don’t wait until you’re already sniffling to start worrying about your seasonal allergies. For the best results, you should start medication before your allergy season begins. Check out our month-to-month guide to seasonal allergies to figure out exactly when your allergen will be in the air.
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Oral antihistamines, nasal sprays, and eye drops are very effective at preventing and controlling your symptoms. However, you can also try natural, non-medicated remedies like artificial tears to wash out eye irritants and nasal saline spray to rinse off allergens.
In terms of treatment, allergy immunotherapy (a.k.a allergy shots) or sublingual immunotherapy (tablets) can also help. In the case of the former, you’ll be injected with gradually-increasing doses of your allergen (for example, pollen), which will cause your immune system to become less sensitive to that substance—and hopefully reduce your seasonal allergies moving forward. In the case of the latter, your doctor is the best person to speak to to see if they’re the right option for you.
You’re pretty sure you have seasonal allergies. But, there’s still that nagging thought in the back of your mind: What if it’s not allergies? What if you picked up a cold? Or the flu? Or coronavirus?
Our quick quiz can tell you if your symptoms might closest with allergies, COVID-19, or the common cold. However in this case, if you’re concerned about your symptoms and the best way to treat them, it’s best to speak with your doctor or a medical professional.
Even if you deal with allergies around the same time every year, it doesn’t take much for your mind to start spiraling. Is this really your allergies? Or is there something else going on—meaning you might be contagious and should stay inside?
Knowing the symptoms of seasonal allergies makes it a heck of a lot easier to know what you’re dealing with. Use this as your guide and you’ll be ready to combat your own allergy season head-on ...and limit those dirty looks you keep getting from strangers.
Article Reviewed By
Amina H. Abdeldaim, MD MPH, Picnic Medical Director