Seasonal allergies

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at October 7, 2016
StartDiseasesSeasonal allergies

Allergies affect as many as 10 to 30 percent of Americans every year. Though seasonal allergies can be a nuisance, they do not pose a severe threat to one's health and can typically be effectively managed. Other terms used to describe seasonal allergies are allergic rhinitis and hay fever though seasonal allergies is specifically a type of allergic rhinitis that occurs during specific seasons.

Contents

Definition & Facts

Allergies cause sneezing, coughing, and nasal congestion. Watery eyes are also a symptom. Studies have estimates that Americans spend over 2 billion dollars each year on prescription and over-the-counter allergy medicines alone. Generally speaking, most of the symptoms of these seasonal allergies tend to occur between spring and the early autumn. In the spring, tree and grass pollen is a common culprit, while in the fall, ragweed pollen is a common culprit.

Seasonal allergies are also associated with a number of other conditions such as atopic dermatitis, sinusitis, conjunctivitis, asthma, otitis media, and migraines. There appears to a genetic factor contributing to a person's likelihood of having seasonal allergies as those with a family history of this condition has a greater likelihood of having seasonal allergies.

Symptoms & Complaints

In addition to the aforementioned symptoms of sneezing, coughing, congestion, and watery eyes, common symptoms of seasonal allergies also include the following:

Allergies can diminish a person's quality of life greatly. When allergies inhibit a person's capacity to have restful sleep, it can cause attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and reduction in cognitive functioning. Sexual functioning may also be compromised due to allergies.

People may experience their symptoms worsening over time even in response to increasingly low amounts of allergens.

Causes

The cause of a seasonal allergy can depend on the specific genetics of the person experiencing the symptoms. There are many different kinds of airborne allergens within areas that are high in pollen and industrial pollution. The most common types of seasonal allergies are caused by flowers, grasses, and trees that produce heavy pollen. Trees whose pollen commonly causes allergic reactions include cedar, cottonwood, mulberry, ash, and pecan. Mold spores can also trigger seasonal allergies particularly when it is humid and warm.

Seasonal allergies may be triggered by days in which the weather is warm and windy because more pollen is produced as well as travels more easily under those conditions. The proximity of a person's home to trees that produce pollen also has an effect.

The reason that pollen is such a strong contributor to allergies is due to a response from the immune system. Naturally, the immune system is designed to fight off all foreign intruders that could pose a threat. The immune system isn’t able to properly identify the nature of pollen, and so it treats it as an intruder. The antibodies that the immune system produces to address the pollen cause a release of histamines, and once the histamines have been activated, seasonal allergy symptoms begin to manifest.

Certain risk factors that increase the chance that a person has seasonal allergies include the following:

  • Use of antibiotics at an early age
  • Having a mother who smokes cigarettes within the first year
  • Males are more likely to have allergies than females

Diagnosis & Tests

While coughing, fatigue, itching eyes, sneezing, sore throat, and nasal complications are all characteristic of seasonal allergies, presentation of these symptoms is not enough to determine a concrete diagnosis. A clinician will diagnose seasonal allergies by the presentation of symptoms, the patient's family history and medical history and certain signs that are observable through physical examination. The latter will involve the physician analyzing the patient's nose, eyes, ears, and throat.

One of the quickest ways to test for seasonal allergies through a skin test. Among all of the different ways to test for seasonal allergies, the most common method is to use the skin prick test. With the prick test, the skin is simply punctured with a specific allergen’s extract. This kind of test is helpful when a person's specific allergy cannot be identified.

Depending on the reaction of the skin after being punctured with this allergen, the nature of the seasonal allergy can be determined with relative accuracy. Though it may not be as common as a skin test, there is also the possibility of a serum-specific antibody test, which is a blood test.

It will also be necessary to discern the difference between seasonal allergies and rhinitis that's a result of a viral infection, bacterial infection, or hormonal changes.

Treatment & Therapy

Avoiding allergens is an important part of treating seasonal allergies. It can involve changing clothes and showering frequently during pollen season and closing windows during pollen season. One of the most common forms of addressing symptoms is through use of a nasal decongestant. Decongestants simply thin out all of the thick nasal secretions that can make it difficult to breathe, and they can be used in either a spray or capsule form. Decongestants can also be used in tandem with antihistamines, which stave off the effects of histamines that the body produces. A common side effect of antihistamines is fatigue. Loratadine is one type of antihistamine. Glucocorticoids may be prescribed for those with severe allergies and come in the form of nasal sprays.

Immunotherapy (also known as allergy shots) may also be recommended which can be administered intravenously. This is the only therapy that seeks to change the underlying mechanisms of the immune system's response. Allergy shots are similar to vaccines in that the allergen will be injected into the patient in order to reduce the patient's sensitivity to the allergen. The body develops a tolerance for the allergen over time.

While not recommended for children under the age of five, allergy shots have been shown to be efficacious in reducing many types of allergies among patients.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

To the extent that seasonal allergies are linked to exposure to environmental toxicants or maternal smoking habits, one's risk of having them may be reduced if infants are not exposed to secondhand smoke.

Avoiding exposure to all irritants and washing one's hands frequently in order to prevent common cold which can exacerbate the symptoms of seasonal allergies.