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Environmental allergies vs. other allergies

Environmental allergies are an immune response to something in your surroundings that’s typically otherwise harmless. Symptoms of environmental allergies vary from person to person but can include sneezing, coughing, and fatigue.

Environmental allergies are somewhat different than food allergies because they’re not a reaction to something you’ve ingested for nutrition. Instead, environmental allergies are a response to triggers you come into contact with in your surroundings or inhale during your day-to-day activities.

Read on to learn more about identifying, treating, and preventing environmental allergies.

The symptoms of environmental allergies can be similar to a cold, but they’re not caused by the same thing. A virus causes a cold while allergies are a reaction caused by an immune system response to certain substances in your surroundings.

Some of the symptoms of environmental allergies include:

  • sneezing
  • runny nose
  • shortness of breath
  • itching
  • headaches
  • wheezing
  • fatigue

If you have asthma, your symptoms might be severe and even life-threatening.

If you have seasonal allergies, your symptoms might be worse during specific times of the year.

An allergen is anything that causes your immune system to trigger an allergic reaction. Identifying your allergens is an important first step in coming up with a treatment plan. These five environmental allergens are the most common.

Dust mites

Dust mites are one of the most common indoor allergens. They’re microscopic bugs that commonly live in furniture and mattresses in your home. If you have a dust mite allergy, your symptoms might be worse in the spring and summer months. That’s because dust mites prefer warm and humid environments.


Pollen is another common allergen. If you’re allergic to pollen, your symptoms of sneezing, watery eyes, or an itchy throat might be worse when pollen increases in the spring and late fall.

Pet dander

Pet dander and pet saliva are common allergens. The symptoms of pet allergies can include:

  • sneezing
  • itching
  • coughing
  • hives

You may experience these symptoms if you’re around an animal, or if you’re in a home or car where an animal’s been. You may even have symptoms if a person near you has dander on their clothing.


Mold spores can cause mild to severe allergic reactions if you have a mold allergy. Symptoms of mold allergy may include:

  • coughing
  • trouble breathing
  • sneezing
  • itchy skin

Mold thrives in damp environments, so your symptoms may be worse during months with damp weather. Mold is also commonly found in basements and bathrooms.

Cigarette smoke

Cigarette smoke has been found to irritate and worsen allergy symptoms in many people. Avoid smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke, especially if you have allergies.

If you think you have an environmental allergy, see an allergist. They’ll ask you questions about your symptoms and your medical and family history. Using this information along with the results from allergy testing, they can identify specific allergens that may be causing your symptoms.

Allergy tests may include:

Allergy tests determine the specific allergens causing your symptoms. Once your doctor has identified your allergens, they can suggest medications and treatment options.

After diagnosis, your doctor may recommend medication for treating your allergies. You may find relief using over-the-counter (OTC) medications, such as an antihistamine.

Some of these medications can cause drowsiness. Be sure to read warning labels and talk with your doctor about which OTC medication may be right for you. Cetirizine (Zyrtec) and loratadine (Claritin) are two common OTC antihistamines that are less likely to cause drowsiness.

OTC antihistamines may be more appropriate for seasonal environmental allergies since you won’t have to take them long-term.

If your allergies are severe, your doctor may recommend prescription medications.

You may be a candidate for allergen immunotherapy, also called allergy shots. Allergen immunotherapy involves multiple shots given over the course of a few years. Allergy shots can improve and reduce symptoms for an extended period of time.

Preventing exposure to allergens can be one of the most effective ways to managing your symptoms and creating an allergy-free home. You may also be able to manage or reduce your symptoms with home remedies.

1. Use an air filter

Indoor air filters can improve the quality of indoor air by trapping allergens and pollutants before they enter your home. A 2018 study noted improved indoor air quality after installation of an air purifier equipped with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter.

People with dust mite allergies also noted an improvement in symptoms, which suggested the air filter improved quality of life over the course of the study.

Look for an air purifier that has a HEPA filter or equip your home’s ventilation system with one. When used properly, HEPA filters capture more allergens than other air filters. You can also purchase a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter to help further reduce allergens in your home.

2. Allergy-proof your bed

Allergen-proof pillowcases and mattress covers can also be used to prevent exposure to dust mites. A diligent cleaning routine involving weekly washing of sheets and vacuuming can reduce exposure to allergens as well.

Make sure you wash your bedding in hot water to remove all allergens. Vacuuming your mattress while your bedding’s in the wash can also help reduce dust mites and, if you have a pet, dander.

3. Close your windows

Keeping your windows closed can help reduce the number of environmental allergens in your home, especially on days with a high pollen count.

The one part of your house where you should regularly open the windows, if you have them, is in the bathroom. Open windows or turn on a bathroom vent following showers to help remove moisture and prevent mold from growing.

4. Keep pets out of the bedroom

If you have pets, keep them out of your bedroom. Since you spend an extended period of time in your bedroom sleeping, having less allergens there can reduce symptoms. It may also improve your sleep.

Also, bathe your pets regularly to reduce the amount of dander. If your pet goes outside, regular baths can also reduce the risk of them tracking in allergens like pollen.

5. Take a probiotic

Researchers believe there may be an association between gut bacteria and allergies, including seasonal allergies. In one study, participants who took probiotics reported improved seasonal allergy symptoms compared with those who took a placebo. However, the improvements seen may have been specific to one set of probiotics instead of all probiotics.

6. Use saline

OTC saline nasal spray has recently been found to be an effective way to manage symptoms of dust mite allergies. One 2016 study noted a significant improvement of coughing caused by allergies in participants who used saline solution nasal spray for 30 days.

7. Add essential oils

Essential oils can be used to support conventional treatment. Lavender, tea tree, and eucalyptus oils are anti-inflammatories and may provide relief from congestion and itchy or swollen eyes.

Full-strength essential oils can cause irritation or adverse reactions, so be sure to dilute them with a carrier oil or use a diffuser. Keep in mind that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate the purity, quality, or packaging of essential oils. Be sure to use essential oils as directed and purchase oils only from trusted, reputable sources.

8. Practice good hygiene

Showering after being outdoors can help remove allergens from your body. You should also wash your clothing if you’ve been digging in the yard or raking leaves. That can help prevent tracking mold spores and pollen into your home.

Environmental allergies can cause mild to severe symptoms, including sneezing, headaches, fatigue, and coughing. Preventing exposure to environmental allergens is the best way to treat them.

You may not be able to avoid the allergens that trigger your symptoms. Your healthcare provider can help you create a plan for treating your allergies through home remedies and medications.