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What are seasonal allergies and how do I manage them?

May 16, 2022 • read

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What are seasonal allergies and how do I manage them?

It’s officially spring. The days are getting longer, the grass is getting greener, and the trees are starting to bud. If you’re among the one in five Canadians who experience seasonal allergies, however, chances are that watery eyes, a runny nose, and wheezing are your first markers of the season.

Anyone with seasonal allergies knows that the warmer weather brings out your worst symptoms. But while common seasonal allergies typically aren’t life-threatening, they can seriously affect your quality of life. Here’s how to spot them coming, and how to treat and manage your seasonal allergy symptoms.

What are seasonal allergies, when do they start, and how long do they last?

Allergies can sometimes be confusing, and there are many misconceptions about them. Also called allergic rhinitis, seasonal allergies are the result of your body mounting an immune defence to a harmless substance — in most cases, pollen.

Unlike bee-pollinated plants like roses, many trees and grasses release their pollen in large quantities so that the wind can pollinate their species. If you have allergies, these tiny grains of pollen in the air make your body think it’s under attack by a pathogen. This causes your immune system to release histamine, resulting in all the unpleasant allergy symptoms you’re familiar with.

Since pollen is usually the cause of most seasonal allergies, allergy season coincides with spring. Most people who experience allergies usually find their symptoms start somewhere around March or April with tree pollen season. It can change, however, depending on weather patterns, arriving earlier in warmer years, and later in colder ones.

Just as the trees begin to decrease their pollen production, grasses begin to ramp up theirs. Grass pollen is at its peak over the summer months — June, July, and August. Weeds and their pollen also creep in during those warmer months, but the worst of the worst — ragweed — shows up in August and sticks around until the first frost.

If your pollen allergies are limited to one type of pollen, then your symptoms should let up once that plant decreases its production. Many people with seasonal allergies, however, are allergic to more than one substance. This means that your seasonal allergies may come in waves, and can also mean that your symptoms will continue until the cooler weather arrives.

What are the symptoms of seasonal allergies?

Symptoms of seasonal allergies fall on a spectrum. This means that everyone is affected to varying degrees, with some experiencing intense symptoms and others more mild ones. These symptoms may include:

  • Runny nose and sneezing
  • Stuffy nose, difficulty breathing through the nose, or both
  • Coughing
  • Itchy, watery eyes
  • Wheezing
  • Pressure inside the ears or ear popping
  • Rashes or hives
  • Puffy eyes
  • Brain fog
  • Disturbed sleep, leading to daytime fatigue

Can you develop seasonal allergies as an adult?

Most people develop allergic rhinitis by age 20. This doesn’t mean, however, that your allergies appear in infancy. Most children don’t develop seasonal allergies until they hit five or six, as you need multiple exposures to an allergen before you develop a reaction.

While it’s less common to develop seasonal allergies after age 20, it’s still possible. Moving to a different country, region, or climate, with different vegetation can be a trigger for this later-age allergy onset. But even without a significant move, some still develop allergic rhinitis later on in life, and it’s not totally clear why.

The good news is that it’s also possible to grow out of your seasonal allergies. Some parents report that their children’s allergies resolve spontaneously during puberty.

Can I have seasonal allergies all year?

Seasonal allergies might seem like they last forever, but if you’re experiencing them in the winter, there’s likely another culprit.

Indoor air is a lot more than just oxygen. It’s also full of tiny particles containing things like dust mites, mould, and even pet dander. If you live in a home with other pests, it’s also possible that your allergy symptoms could be a response to cockroaches.

If you find that the cold weather doesn’t bring any respite from your allergy symptoms, it’s a good idea to see an allergist. They can help you figure out the cause of your symptoms, and whether or not they’re actually seasonal.

Do allergies get worse or better as you get older?

It can really go either way. Some children, for example, are lucky enough to grow out of their allergies completely before they hit adulthood. It’s also possible to experience a decrease in symptoms as you age due to a weakening of your immune system.

Many people, however, experience the opposite. Since allergies can worsen with each exposure, some find that theirs seem to increase each year.

What’s happening weather-wise can also play a role. Climate change can spur plants to begin their pollen production earlier in the season, and end it later on. It may also stimulate them to increase their output. Not only that, but warming temperatures encourage the spread of plants into climates they couldn’t previously survive in, exposing new populations to potential allergen triggers.

How do you treat seasonal allergies?

Not everyone needs to treat their seasonal allergies. If you find that your symptoms are mild and don’t affect your quality of life, there’s no real need.

If your allergies are more than an occasional nuisance, you’ll likely want to explore some treatment options. For not-so-severe allergies, over-the-counter (OTC) medication is a great first line of defence. A number of OTC antihistamines are available, many providing 12 to 24-hour relief from symptoms.

Nasal rinses and sprays are also available without a prescription and can lessen or get rid of nasal symptoms entirely. Some OTC medications even combine their decongestant properties with antihistamines to address multiple symptoms.

If you’ve tried every OTC allergy medication at your local pharmacy and you’re still looking for relief, speaking to an allergist should be your next step. In this case, they might suggest a prescription medication or even an injection for relief of your seasonal allergies.

If your seasonal allergies are quite severe, however, immunotherapy might be the best course of action. A relatively new treatment for allergies — both food and seasonal — immunotherapy involves desensitization.

Immunotherapy encourages your immune system to modulate its response to the allergen by exposing it to minuscule amounts. As your body adjusts, you’re given larger amounts of the allergic trigger. The idea is that eventually your body will no longer view the allergen as a threat and won’t respond with symptoms of an allergic reaction. While this treatment seems promising, it should only be attempted under the direct supervision of a trained professional.

Tips to manage seasonal allergies for adults and kids

Seasonal allergies can be miserable, but they are manageable. Here’s how:

  • Check your local pollen forecast and avoid being outside when pollen counts are highest (usually mid-morning and early evening, but this may vary)
  • Start taking your allergy medication two weeks before allergy season to stop symptoms from ever starting
  • Limit your exposure to outdoor air by keeping doors and windows closed
  • Replace your furnace filter regularly
  • Use air conditioning to cool your home and change the filter regularly (if applicable)
  • Change your clothes and shower after being outside — this is especially important for children who may have been outdoors all day
  • Wear sunglasses for added protection against pollen
  • Try a HEPA air purifier to improve the air quality in your home
  • Remove allergy-triggering plants like ragweed from your property — or have someone else do it if possible
  • Deal with dust in your home by using a damp cloth to trap and remove the particles from your household surfaces
  • Don’t hang laundry outside to dry
  • Avoid gardening when the pollen count is high
  • Head outside after a big rainfall — it helps to clear pollen from the air

Can you prevent seasonal allergies?

While it’s not entirely possible to prevent seasonal allergies, you can do things to minimize your risk of developing them. Start taking your allergy medication before allergy season starts. This stops your body from producing histamines, which limits the symptoms you experience. Coupling this with allergy avoidance should cause a substantial reduction in the symptoms you experience.

Knowing what you’re actually allergic to is the starting point for treating your allergies. Treating a seasonal ragweed allergy when what you’re actually experiencing is a dust mite allergy isn’t going to do the trick. If you live in Ontario, British Columbia, Quebec, or New Brunswick, seeing an allergist online can help give you clarity.

A Canadian-licensed allergist will take your medical history and can order additional testing to determine what you’re reacting to, if necessary. The allergist can also recommend a treatment plan, which may include prescription medication.

If your seasonal allergies are affecting your quality of life, it’s time to do something about it. Make an appointment with an allergist today and get back to enjoying your time outdoors.

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