April 7, 2022

What you need to know to survive spring allergies

Learn how to reduce your exposure to pollen and which over-the-counter medications can help provide relief.

The arrival of spring brings with it a sense of renewed hope and joy along with flowers blooming and leaves budding on trees, and — yes — those dreadful allergies. 

More than 50 million Americans experience various types of allergies each year, and allergies are the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the U.S., according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. The misery of seasonal allergies can dampen plans we may have outdoors where the birds, bees, and even the wind spread pollen. 

The trigger for spring allergies 

The biggest spring allergy trigger is pollen, according to Salima Thobani, MD, an Allergist Immunologist with Kaiser Permanente Southern California.  

“As the weather gets warmer and drier, trees, grasses, and weeds release these tiny grains into the air to fertilize other plants,” Dr. Thobani explained. “When they enter the nose of someone who's allergic, they send the body's defenses haywire.”  

When a person has an allergic reaction, their immune system produces a “weapon” called an antibody, according to Dr. Thobani. Antibodies recognize allergens we have been previously exposed to, and cause our immune cells to fight them off, resulting in the typical symptoms associated with allergies. 

Symptoms of seasonal allergies 

As spring weather suddenly changes from cool to warm, it may be challenging to distinguish between an allergic reaction and a cold or the flu.  

For many of us, symptoms of seasonal allergies can be mild and an annoyance like sneezing, itchy eyes, or a runny nose.  Other symptoms can include a headache, fatigue, sore throat, congestion, or coughing. 

Reducing exposure to pollen 

Pollen can last for several months and continue to cause seasonal allergies well into the summer, and can even make asthma reactions worse.

You can reduce your exposure to pollen by:

  • Keeping your house and car windows closed — using your air conditioning system can be helpful.
  • Limiting the time you spend outside. 
  • Wearing a pollen mask or dust mask if you need to mow the lawn. 
  • Rinsing your eyes with cool water or saline eyedrops to remove clinging pollen. 
  • Taking a shower and changing your clothes after you work or play outside. 

Medication options for relief 

There’s no cure for seasonal allergies, according to Dr. Thobani. However, there are several medications, including antihistamines and nasal steroids, which can provide relief and help you breathe a little easier.  

Over-the-counter antihistamines that can be effective include loratadine (Claritin), fexofenadine (Allegra), or cetirizine (Zyrtec). The benefit of these medicines is that they cause less drowsiness compared to other common antihistamines such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) or chlorpheniramine (Chlortrimeton). 

“Because allergy symptoms — such as weepy eyes, runny nose, and sneezing — typically peak in the morning hours, taking your 24-hour allergy medication before going to bed often means that you'll get the maximum effect when you need it the most,” Dr. Thobani said. 

If a person has a history of moderate or more severe allergy symptoms, it would be advantageous to start a steroid nasal spray and continue it through the season, she noted. These medicines, including fluticasone (Flonase) or triamcinolone (Nasacort), are available over the counter without a need for a prescription.