What Causes Seasonal Allergies?
Seasonal allergies are caused by tiny particles that circulate in the air we breathe such as pollens, mold, pet dander, and dust. They're very common, affecting about 35 million people in the U.S. alone. Symptoms include runny nose, itching eyes and ears, sore throat, post nasal drip, sneezing, coughing, asthma, changes in your energy level, your mood and even your cognition.
In the spring and fall, there is an increased amount of pollen in the air as well as spores that come from molds and fungus. Allergies occur when our immune system responds abnormally to these allergens, releasing substances such as histamine. It is not exactly clear why some people's immune systems react this way.
Diagnosing Seasonal Allergies
If you experience the symptoms above every time you mow the lawn or work in the garden -- and those symptoms subside after taking an over-the-counter allergy medication -- you likely have hay fever.
Unfortunately it's not that simple for everyone and even if you know you have seasonal allergies sometimes standard medications you can buy at the grocery store don't cut it. This is why it's necessary to see a physician who specializes in treating allergies, known as an allergist. An allergist may study your family history since allergies can be genetic. Sometimes, and especially in children, it can be difficult to differentiate allergy symptoms from symptoms of the common cold. Allergies are suspected if symptoms last longer than a cold normally would, or if there is a pattern of exposure to allergy triggers. There are also subtle differences in symptoms that an allergist is aware of, such as the color of your mucous. It is usually clear in an allergic reaction but sometimes yellow or green in a bacterial or viral infection.
There are also several tests an allergist can perform to diagnose allergies and to find out what the allergy trigger is. One way is to perform a skin test. During this test, a small amount of the suspected allergen is injected just below the surface of the skin. If the patient is allergic to the substance a reaction, redness and irritation at the site, will usually be seen within 20 minutes.
An allergist can also run blood tests which look at certain components of your immune system. If you have an allergy, these components, called immunoglobulins, may be abnormal. Another cellular system of the immune system, called eosinophils, can be tested. There is usually an elevated level of these immune cells associated with an allergic reaction.
Treating Seasonal Allergies
There are many measures that can be taken to treat seasonal allergies. Avoidance is key. If you have hay fever, stay indoors when the pollen count is high. The pollen count is measured by several organizations and can be easily found online for free. It is also sometimes reported on your local news. If you are allergic to grass get someone else to mow the lawn.
There are many medications that can be used in conjunction to treat allergy symptoms. These include:
- diphenhydramine (Benadryl)
- pseudoephedrine (Sudafed)
- loratidine (Claritin)
- fexofenidine (Allegra)
- chlorpheniramine (Chlor-Trimeton)
A treatment usually reserved for more severe cases is allergy shots, also called immunotherapy. This treatment involves injections of purified allergens. So if you were allergic to a certain type of pollen, that pollen would be given to you in a series of injections. After a significant amount of time (sometimes years) your body will change its response to that allergen. Some people are cured of the allergy, and most people notice a decrease in symptoms.
While seasonal allergies are quite common and can cause debilitating symptoms, most people can benefit from the above treatments.
American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Allergy and Asthma Advocate - How to Find an Allergist For Your Child. Accessed May 2, 2009 from http://www.aaaai.org/patients/advocate/2006/spring/child_allergist.asp
American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Immunotherapy (Allergy Shots) Accessed May 2, 2009 from http://www.acaai.org/public/facts/shots.htm
American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Tips to Remember: Outdoor Allergens. Accessed May 2, 2009 from http://www.aaaai.org/patients/publicedmat/tips/outdoorallergens.stm
Medline Plus Medical Encyclopedia. Allergy Testing. Accessed May 2, 2009 from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003519.htm