Springtime looks a little different in the US right now: Americans are staying inside way more than usual because of the coronavirus pandemic, but just because there's a brand-new virus circulating doesn't mean that other health issues can go unnoticed. Case in point: Seasonal allergies—something that millions of Americans deal with each and every year.
In the simplest terms, allergy season typically starts as soon as the trees begin to start budding, since seasonal allergies are caused by pollen produced by weeds, grasses and trees. That differs across the US, and according to which allergies you suffer from, but for the most part, tree pollen season is from late February to June, grass season lasts all summer, and ragweed allergies start in August and last until the first snowfall, Josef Shargorodsky, MD, an otolaryngologist at Coastal Ear Nose and Throat in New Jersey, previously told Health. Ronald Purcell, MD, an allergy and immunology physician at Cleveland Clinic adds that seasonal allergies usually start bothering people in March and peak during mid- to late-spring where he's based in Ohio.
Because seasonal allergies often begin at the tail-end of cold and flu season (and, this year, coincide with the coronavirus pandemic), it can be difficult to determine if you're suffering from allergies or another common illness—especially because allergies strike different regions at different times, says Dr. Purcell. Here's how you can pinpoint whether you're suffering from pesky seasonal allergies, and what you can do about them to start feeling better.
What are seasonal allergy symptoms?
“The typical sufferer comes in with classic upper respiratory symptoms,” says Dr. Purcell—that means a runny nose, coughing, sneezing, congestion (that can often cause snoring at night), and itchy eyes and ears. Unfortunately, many of those symptoms can mimic those caused by respiratory viruses; but a good rule of thumb, according to Dr. Purcell, is to notice how soon those symptoms come on. Respiratory viruses, says Dr. Purcell, come on very quickly, causing you to feel ill over the course of as little as one day. Meanwhile, seasonal allergies develop over time. “A virus will hit you like a ton of bricks upfront; allergies [are] a little more gradual,” explains Dr. Purcell.
It should also be noted that, unlike viruses like the flu and COVID-19, seasonal allergies don't cause a fever, Marc F. Goldstein, MD, chief of allergy and immunology at Pennsylvania Hospital previously told Health.
The hallmark symptom of seasonal allergies, though, is something that isn’t usually associated with the common cold: itching. If you notice that your congestion is accompanied by a pattern of itching and scratching, there’s a chance you’re reacting to pollen in the air rather than suffering from a virus, says Dr. Purcell. He also notes that if you suffer from asthma, seasonal allergies can exacerbate your asthma symptoms.
How can you treat allergy symptoms?
If you find yourself constantly dealing with a coughing, sneezing or other allergy symptoms each year around the same time, it's wise to see an allergist. While the treatment options for seasonal allergy symptoms vary, the first line of defense is usually an antihistamine, says Dr. Purcell. Doctors typically advise trying a non-sedating, over the counter antihistamine, such as Zyrtec or Allegra at first. Additionally, nasal sprays like Flonase, are used to treat allergies (but, quick note: for nasal sprays to be effective, you need to start them before allergy season hits).
If over-the-counter medications don’t work well enough for you, allergy shots are another option, says Dr. Purcell. But there's one pretty big downside: These allergy shots are to be administered over the course of a few years, so you can gradually build up immunity to your specific allergen. Because these allergy shots are so time-consuming, most allergists recommend them as treatment only when your allergies are so bad that they disrupt your daily routine, like causing you to miss work or school.
Overall, if you're used to your seasonal allergy symptoms and have a treatment plan that makes you feel best nailed down, stick to that (with the guidance of your doctor, of course). But if you're noticing new symptoms—especially ones that seemed to crop up this year—check in with your doctor to determine if you are in fact suffering from allergies or if something more serious could be going on.
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