Does it seem like you always get a cough, runny nose and itchy eyes at certain times of year? In the past, you may have chalked it up to the cold or the flu. But if you’re here, it’s likely you’re starting to suspect that allergies may be to blame for the symptoms you’re experiencing. So how do you know if you have seasonal allergies?
Keep reading to find out more about seasonal allergy symptoms, causes, peak times and when you should get care.
What are seasonal allergies?
Seasonal allergies, also called hay fever or allergic rhinitis, are an incredibly common condition affecting millions of Americans. They result from an allergic reaction to the growth cycle for plants and mold. As they grow, plants and mold release pollen and spores into the air. When you breathe in pollen and spores, it can cause inflammation, irritation and other symptoms.
For some, symptoms may be just a case of the sneezes a couple times a year. But for others, seasonal allergies can cause congestion; a runny, itchy nose; watery eyes, headaches and more for weeks or months at a time.
What are the signs of seasonal allergies?
Common seasonal allergy signs and symptoms include:
- Itchy, watery or red eyes
- Circles under eyes
- Itchy mouth, nose or throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Drainage from the nose down the back of the throat (postnasal drip)
- Temporary loss of smell
- Dry cough
- Tiredness (due to difficulty sleeping from other symptoms)
- Scratchy or sore throat (rarely)
- Snoring (due to congestion)
How do you know if you have seasonal allergies?
A primary care doctor or clinician, or an allergy specialist, can provide an official allergy diagnosis. And to do so, they typically recommend an allergy test.
A skin prick test is the most common way to test for allergies. And while it sounds like it may sting, skin testing isn’t painful. During the test, your skin is lightly pricked with suspected allergens and then monitored for allergic reactions. If you’re allergic to an allergen, you’ll get a raised welt or hive at the location of the scratch. A variety of allergens can be tested.
If you’re experiencing symptoms but not sure if you have allergies, start by making an appointment with a primary care doctor or clinician. Your doctor can assess your symptoms and connect you to an allergist if needed.
How can you tell the difference between seasonal allergies and other conditions?
Since seasonal allergies often affect airways, sinuses and nasal passages, several symptoms overlap with illnesses like the common cold, seasonal flu and COVID-19. Check out the helpful resources below to learn how to tell the difference between other conditions:
- Cold symptoms vs. allergy symptoms
- Cold symptoms vs. flu symptoms
- COVID-19 symptoms vs. flu symptoms
- Allergy symptoms vs. COVID-19 symptoms
- Allergy vs. asthma in children
- Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)
What causes seasonal allergies?
Seasonal allergies, like other types of allergies, develop when your body’s immune system detects and then overreacts to a foreign substance it thinks is harmful. And the symptoms you experience like sneezing and a runny or stuffy nose are your immune system’s way of fighting off the invader.
Pollen is a common cause of seasonal allergies. Pollen is a powdery substance produced by trees, grasses and weeds as part of their reproductive cycle. It’s lightweight and dry, so traveling long distances in the wind is easy. A high pollen level means you’re much more likely to have worse allergy symptoms. Many TV weather broadcasts now include a report on the pollen levels in your area.
Mold typically appears as black, white or green splotches on damp surfaces. It commonly grows in bathrooms and basements, but outdoor culprits include soil, fallen wet leaves and plants.
Like pollen, mold spores are carried through the air. But unlike some allergens, mold easily travels on both wet and dry days.
Dust mites are microscopic bugs that live in warm and humid environments. Their skin droppings – not bites – are what cause an allergic reaction.
Dust mites like bedding, carpet, stuffed animals and furniture. So if you have a dust mite allergy, you can have allergy issues throughout the year.
Contrary to what many people may think, animal fur or hair alone doesn’t cause allergies. It’s the animal’s dander – which are skin flakes they’ve shed – that usually triggers allergies. That’s because dander, along with saliva and urine, contain proteins that can cause an allergic response.
Some people can suffer from allergy symptoms when they breathe the air around dead cockroaches and cockroach droppings.
Actually, there isn’t just one allergy season. Instead, there are certain times during the year when allergy symptoms may be more severe, depending on what you’re allergic to.
As for when allergy seasons start and stop, it depends on where you live. If you have indoor allergies, you could experience allergy symptoms year-round – including in the winter.
Depending on where you live, spring allergy season can start as early as March and last through early summer. The release of tree pollens and outdoor mold spores are two of the most common spring allergy triggers.
Spring allergy symptoms include all the classics like sneezing; runny, itchy or stuffy nose; headache, itchy and watery eyes; and dry cough.
During the summer months, pollens from grasses and weeds are to blame for allergy flare-ups. These summer allergies are in full swing by July.
Summer allergy symptoms are the same as spring allergy symptoms with runny or stuffy nose; sneezing, and itchy eyes, nose and throat.
Another big factor in the summer months can be pollution. While pollution is a concern year-round, the heat of the summer can have a big impact on air quality.
Starting in late summer and throughout the fall, ragweed is the big seasonal allergy offender. Just one plant can produce up to 1 billion pollen grains, which are so light they can be carried on the wind for hundreds of miles.
In most parts of the United States, ragweed season peaks in mid-September, but symptoms can last until the first frost of the year – so, it’s possible to have seasonal allergies in November.
Mold and dust mites can also trigger fall allergies – particularly when you need to flip on your home’s furnace for the first time. Raking up wet, fallen leaves can also stir up pollen and mold into the air, irritating allergies.
Cold weather can bring relief from allergens like pollen and mold, but you might still react to indoor allergy triggers like animal dander, cockroaches or dust mites. The good news is that winter allergens are easier to manage by cleaning your bedding, carpets and furniture regularly. Switching out furnace filters every three months and getting your air ducts cleaned every 2-3 years can also help you get relief from winter allergies.
Get the care you need to keep seasonal allergies under control
Over-the-counter allergy medications work reasonably well, especially for itching and sneezing. If you have those symptoms, start with an oral antihistamine tablet for allergy relief. The nice thing about an antihistamine tablet is it works fairly quickly – within an hour or so. But make sure you continue to take your allergy medication consistently and as directed to help maintain that relief throughout the allergy season.
Talk to a doctor about treating seasonal allergies
Finding the best treatment plan and medications can greatly improve your quality of life, as well as protect you from other health problems. We can help you manage your symptoms so you can get back to work (or play). And we make it convenient to get the kind of care you need.
If you’ve never spoken with a doctor about allergies before, start by making a primary care appointment. You can choose an in-person visit or a video visit. They’ll listen, create a plan and connect you with an allergist or an ear, nose and throat doctor, if needed.
If you know you have allergies and feel like they may be getting worse, you can make an appointment with an allergist without a referral.
If it’s the middle of the night or the weekend, and care just can’t wait – start a Virtuwell visit. Virtuwell treats more than 60 common conditions online, including seasonal allergies. You’ll start by answering a few simple questions about your symptoms and medical history, and then a certified nurse practitioner will get you a diagnosis and treatment plan – usually in about an hour. And if you need a prescription for allergy medication or nasal spray, they can send it to a pharmacy of your choice.