What are seasonal allergies or allergic rhinitis?

Seasonal allergies, also commonly known as allergic rhinitis or hay fever, occur when the body’s immune system overreacts to allergens that are typically harmless for others.

Seasonal allergies commonly occur with the seasons. In the spring, tree pollen can trigger an allergic reaction. In the summer, grass pollen can trigger an allergic reaction, and in the fall, ragweed can trigger an allergic reaction.

Allergies caused by allergens such as dust, mold, cockroaches, feathers and pet dander are called perennial allergies because they can occur all year-round.

Causes of seasonal allergies or allergic rhinitis

The exact cause of seasonal allergies is not known. Symptoms of the condition develop when an allergen gets into your immune system and your body starts to fight it. Common allergens include:

  • Tree pollen
  • Grass pollen
  • Dust mites
  • Animal dander
  • Mold

Risk factors for seasonal allergies or allergic rhinitis

Although anyone can develop seasonal allergies or allergic rhinitis, people with a family history of the condition are more likely to develop it.

Patients with the following conditions are more likely to develop allergies:

  • Eczema
  • Asthma

Other factors that could trigger allergies include:

  • Air pollution
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Humidity
  • Perfumes or colognes
  • Cold temperatures
  • Fumes

Symptoms of seasonal allergies or allergic rhinitis

Symptoms of seasonal allergies include:

  • Wheezing
  • Itchy eyes and/or skin
  • Sneezing
  • Congestion
  • Rash

Diagnosis of seasonal allergies or allergic rhinitis

Your primary care provider or allergist can diagnose seasonal allergic rhinitis by reviewing your symptoms, as well as your medical history.

Your physician may also order additional testing to confirm the diagnosis including:

Skin prick test
During a skin prick test, your doctor will place an allergen on your arm and prick the surface of the skin to allow the allergen to enter your blood stream. A small welt will appear if you are allergic to the allergen being tested.

Blood test
A blood test can also be an effective method to confirm whether you have seasonal allergies. The test will look for immunoglobin E (IgE) antibody in the blood. If you have the IgE antibody in response to a suspected allergen, you are allergic to the tested allergen.

Some patients may need more advanced diagnostic testing such as:

  • Nasal endoscopy — your doctor can see inside the nose during a nasal endoscopy to determine if you have any nasal polyps, a noncancerous growth in the nasal passage or sinusitis.
  • Nasal inspiratory flow test — measures air flow as you breathe through the nose.
  • Computerized tomography (CT) scan — produces detailed images of the nasal cavities to determine if you have other nasal abnormalities.

Treatment for seasonal allergies or allergic rhinitis

First-line therapy for treating allergic rhinitis is to avoid the allergens that are causing your symptoms. If this is not possible, treatments to manage your symptoms include:

Antihistamines
Antihistamines are typically the first medication your doctor will recommend. They work by stopping the body from making histamine. There are various types of antihistamines, including Allegra, Benadryl, Claritin and Zyrtec.

Decongestants
Decongestants can help relieve stuffy noses and sinus pressure. Options include Afrin nasal spray, Sudafed and Zyrtec-D. Decongestants should only be used for five days or less. Patients on a decongestant should also be monitored by their doctor.

Eye drops
Eye drops can relieve eye itchiness associated with allergies.

Nasal sprays
Steroid nasal sprays are a long-term, effective way to manage allergy symptoms.

Immunotherapy (allergy shots)
Immunotherapy, also known as allergy shots, is a treatment for more severe seasonal allergies. Your allergist will inject small doses of allergens under the skin to allow your body to get used to the allergen that is causing your symptoms. To maximize efficacy, you will be on allergy shots for a year or more. Although allergy shots will not cure your allergies, they can make the symptoms less severe.

Sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT)
During sublingual immunotherapy, a tablet with allergens is placed under your tongue. SLIT is effective in treating grass, tree pollen, cat dander, dust mites and ragweed.

Recovery from seasonal allergies or allergic rhinitis

Although allergies cannot be cured, you can manage your symptoms to make them less severe. It is important to avoid (as much as possible) the allergens causing your symptoms.

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