It’s Not Too Early to Start Taking Spring Allergy Medication, Experts Say

  • Seasonal allergies affect over 19 million adults in the United States.
  • Allergy season differs based on the region you live in; warmer climates generally experience an earlier allergy season.
  • By taking allergy medication before the peak season sets in, individuals may be able to lessen the severity of their symptoms.

The arrival of spring may feel like a far-off reality depending on where in the U.S. you live, but experts say now is the time to start thinking about taking medication to protect against symptoms from springtime allergies.

Seasonal allergies, also called seasonal allergic rhinitis, or hay fever, are incredibly common in the U.S.—it’s estimated that the condition affects over 19 million adults and over 5 million children. And though the worst season for allergies depends on what each person is allergic to, early spring can bring heavy levels of pollen that are difficult for some people to manage.

“I always tell patients, ‘Start taking your go-to over-the-counter allergy tablet [on] Valentine’s Day,’” Christina Cruz, MD, allergist and immunologist with Tufts Medical Center, told Health. “It gives you a couple of weeks before the pollen starts building up to have a little baseline protection.”

Here’s what experts had to say about why now is a good time to start taking allergy medication, how to know if a person is taking the right one, and other ways to be as prepared as possible for the increasing pollen levels this spring.

Woman looking at a pill bottle

Getty Images / AsiaVision

Why Take Allergy Medications Before Symptoms Start?

Seasonal allergies are caused by the body’s immune system overreacting to something it shouldn’t. For people with seasonal allergies, their body mistakenly identifies pollen as a threat, and sends chemicals into the nose that cause symptoms such as a runny or itchy nose, sneezing, coughing, or watery, itchy eyes.

That's where allergy medications—antihistamines, decongestants, or steroids—come into play. These medications work to lessen the severity of that immune system reaction.

“[Antihistamine] just basically stabilizes those cells that are responsible for releasing histamine in response to some of this irritation or inflammation that allergies cause on the body,” Dr. Cruz explained.

The same is even more so true for nasal spray steroids, noted Stanley Schwartz, MD, PhD, chief of the division of allergy, immunology, and rheumatology at the University at Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

“That particular medication needs a little bit of lead time in order to become effective—by that I don’t mean months, I mean perhaps a couple of weeks,” Dr. Schwartz told Health. “Even though the symptoms aren’t there, it’s preparing for the onset of symptoms.”

Though it’s smart to start taking steroid medications a few weeks before the spring, antihistamine pills may not even need as long of a preparation period, Dr. Schwartz added. Those tend to start working immediately, he said.

Fighting Allergy Symptoms Can Look Different For Each Person

Even though a few weeks before springtime is the general rule of thumb for when to start taking allergy medication, there are a number of factors that can change when that ideal start date might be.

Dr. Cruz recommends starting around Valentine’s Day, but Dr. Scwartz said that people may not need to begin their over-the-counter allergy medications until closer to mid-March. This is largely because seasonal allergies can look vastly different depending on a person's specific allergy and location.

Spring allergy season is driven mainly by trees, which pollinate earlier in the year. For people living in the northern part of the U.S., that can make this time of year “bothersome” for people, Dr. Cruz explained. She’s based in the Boston area.

“In our area [the Northeast], just the sheer volume of pollen that gets released in the springtime, along with winds that kind of shift—the pollen is said to travel vast distances,” she said. “It almost feels like a body overload, your body’s overstimulated.”

But tree allergies are not solely an issue for people living in the northern U.S.—some of the worst species for allergy sufferers include the maple, oak, cedar, and willow, which can be found throughout the country. In the South and other regions where temperatures are warmer, spring allergy season can start as early as January.

And tree pollen isn’t the only cause of allergies—grass pollen can cause symptoms in the late spring and summer, and people allergic to ragweed or similar plants may have symptoms starting in the late summer and lasting through the first frost, Dr. Schwartz said.

So if a person doesn’t typically have symptoms in the early spring, it’s very possible that their hay fever is caused by grasses or weeds rather than trees, meaning February or March is definitely too early to start taking medications.

How Do You Know If You’re Taking the Right Medication? 

Much like spring allergy season itself, the treatments available to manage hay fever symptoms can vary and often involve a fair amount of “trial and error,” Dr. Cruz commented.

“The nice thing about all of these allergy medications that are available to people is the flexibility that it allows,” Dr. Cruz said. “Depending on the intensity of your allergy symptoms, you can choose to just try to manage it with a tablet or maybe one nose spray.”

If a person’s symptoms aren’t improving after taking the medication, they switch to a different kind of drug or even to a different brand, she added.

There is currently no evidence that the efficacy of antihistamine medications diminishes over time. But anecdotally, Dr. Cruz said, some of her patients tell her they feel like they get better results when switching brands or medication types throughout allergy season.

“One brand may work particularly well on them for a certain amount of time. But then it kind of loses its efficacy the longer they use it. So it’s not like a permanent tolerance develops,” she said, “Your body kind of gets used to it and it needs a break.”

But if changing it up isn’t working, it’s probably time to ask an allergist about allergy shots. These essentially get rid of allergy symptoms altogether, Dr. Schwartz explained, but can take three or more years to be fully effective.

“They’re great, but boy the commitment is significant,” he said. “You don’t cure allergies with all the drugs we’re talking about—you just manage them. But this is the potential for complete cure, but [it’s] a big commitment.”

Other Strategies to Avoid Allergy Symptoms This Spring

In addition to medications, people with hay fever should close windows and doors to avoid pollen getting inside—especially on high pollen days. This would ideally prevent the allergic reaction from happening in the first place.

It’s also important to think about the more covert ways that pollen might be getting inside a person’s home, Drs. Schwartz and Cruz added. That might include brushing or bathing pets when they come inside, or wearing a hat or washing your hair after walking around outside.

People can even consider wearing a mask outside during the worst of their allergy symptoms, too. Some air filters may be able to remove some of the pollen from people’s homes, but Drs. Cruz and Schwartz said they wouldn’t recommend relying solely on them.

With a variety of options for medications and strategies to avoid pollen, allergy season can feel confusing or even oppressive. But the key is making a plan for allergy season ahead of time, listening to your body so that you can make medication changes, and seeking out advice from an allergist if things aren’t getting better. These are good hay fever prevention measures, but people have to find a way to live their lives too, Dr. Cruz said.

“You know, it’s always easy to say, ‘Well, just avoid the allergen,’” she said. “But I’m a big advocate for being able to enjoy the outdoors even if you have allergies. And that’s why [you should] go see your allergist to see if we can optimize that for you to be able to do these things if you’re a heavy allergy sufferer.”

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