- Spring increases in pollen can lead to allergy symptoms.
- These allergies can be mistaken for a viral infection.
- Allergy season is also coming earlier now thanks to climate change.
- Several factors can make your allergy symptoms worse, including air quality, a changing immune system, and your level of pollen exposure.
- Strategies to control seasonal allergies can include avoidance, medications, and immunotherapy.
Spring means we will soon see plants budding and blooming with new life. However, if you get seasonal allergies, it can also mean your allergy symptoms will be coming back to life.
Seasonal allergies — also known as hay fever or allergic rhinitis — are a reaction to pollen, the yellowish powder that we often see building up on our cars in the spring.
Pollen is produced by cone-bearing and flowering plants as a part of reproduction. Grains of pollen must travel from the anther of the plant to the stigma for the plant to produce fruits or seeds.
While insects can pick up pollen and transfer it in many cases, other plants release pollen into the air, where it is transported via wind. This is the main cause of seasonal allergy symptoms.
When you come in contact with pollen grains, your immune system mistakes pollen for an intruder.
It then responds to this perceived invader by releasing histamine and other chemicals that cause the telltale symptoms of an allergy, such as sneezing, runny nose, and itchy, watery eyes.
While there is no cure for seasonal allergies, they can be treated and controlled.
Here’s what you need to know to stay one step ahead of them this coming spring.
With the winter cold, flu, and the peak of the Omicron coronavirus variant just behind us, we may still be thinking about viruses when our allergy symptoms begin to flare.
Dr. Samuel Friedlander, an allergist and clinical assistant professor of medicine at Case Western Reserve University, said that allergies can be difficult to distinguish from a viral infection, including COVID-19, due to the overlap in symptoms such as sinus congestion, headache, sneezing, and cough.
“This highlights the importance of testing for allergies to help diagnose and manage seasonal allergies,” said Friedlander. “When we test with noninvasive skin tests, we often are surprised by finding answers we didn’t expect. And this helps me treat my patients better.”
Friedlander noted there are some symptoms that would suggest COVID-19 rather than an allergy, such as fever or lost sense of taste or smell.
In addition, it can be helpful to be aware of what your consistent seasonal triggers are, he said. If you are having symptoms concurrently with those triggers, then it could point to an allergy diagnosis.
Dr. Monica T. Kraft, clinical assistant professor in the division of allergy and immunology at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, said allergy season could come earlier than it used to.
“Climate change has led to earlier and longer pollen seasons in some parts of the United States,” said Kraft. “With warmer weather comes more pollen in the air as early as February.”
According to a report from the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), between 1995 and 2010, warmer temperatures in the United States had caused the pollen season to be 11 to 27 days longer.
The report states these warmer temperatures create more airborne pollen, stronger airborne allergens, and even more allergy symptoms.
Kraft said there are several reasons your allergy symptoms might worsen.
For example, differences in pollen count and how much time you’ve spent outdoors could expose you to more pollen.
Factors not directly related to your allergy could play a role as well, including air quality, pollution, and weather changes, which can worsen your nasal symptoms.
Friedlander added that a changing immune system could also worsen allergy symptoms.
“Allergies can change over time, so some years can be especially bad,” he said.
One other thing to keep in mind, said Friedlander, is that your symptoms may be better or worse once you stop wearing a mask for COVID-19.
“Masks have both helped those with allergies as well as making them worse for others,” Friedlander said. “Masks can help filter out allergens and infection, but others have had a harder time breathing or with their sinuses.”
He believes there will now be more allergy exposure as more mask mandates are lifted.
“There’s no reason to suffer. Allergy providers have great treatments,” said Friedlander. “They can help you feel better and even prevent symptoms from occurring in the first place.”
Kraft further explained that allergy treatment consists of three parts: avoidance, medication, and immunotherapy.
While you can’t completely avoid pollen, Kraft said you can minimize your exposure by keeping windows closed in your home and car.
Nasal spray and antihistamines can give you relief from your symptoms as well, she said.
You can also get professional help from an allergist, who can help you identify what you’re allergic to through skin or blood tests and create a treatment plan, said Kraft.
Treatments may include medication, immunotherapy, or both.
Immunotherapy consists of either allergy shots or tablets that target what you are allergic to and decrease the sensitivity over time.