Definition and Overview

Seasonal allergies, also known as allergic rhinitis or hay fever, are allergic reactions that individuals can experience as the seasons changes. There are millions of people around the world with this condition, suffering from runny nose, congestion, itchy eyes, and other such allergic reactions to season-specific allergens.

These seasonal allergies involve an overreacting immune system, as a response to different allergens in the air. There are many allergens that can cause this condition, usually encountered by afflicted individuals as the season change, such as pollen, mold, dust, or pet hair.

Most of the symptoms of seasonal allergies are isolated in the respiratory system, because the allergens are present in the air that the individual breathes in. The immune system, the first-line of defense of the human body against harmful invaders, go on haywire while attacking the allergens.

Seasonal allergies typically occur over the course of years, with the patient experiencing symptoms in specific parts of the years. In some patients, seasonal allergies can also lead to other conditions, such as ear infections or sinusitis. As the patient grows older and as his or her immune system further develops, his or her reaction to the allergen might not be as severe.

Hay fever typically affects children, but these allergic reactions can occur in patients of varying ages. Contrary to popular belief, hay fever is not caused by hay, and the allergic reactions do not result in fevers. Basically, it is an inflammation of the nose that causes cold-like symptoms, which could wind down or completely disappear once the air is clear of allergens.

Some people are not aware that they have seasonal allergies, and might attribute their symptoms to colds and other viruses. If the allergic reactions are quite severe, it is best to ask for a skin test. This diagnostic procedure involves tiny amounts of different allergens placed on the patient’s skin to determine what sort of substances the patient is allergic to.

Cause of Condition

The cause of seasonal allergies, like any kind of allergy, is exposure to certain types of allergen that makes the patient’s immune system go on haywire. Pollen is among the most common and it can come from different sources, including flowers, trees, weeds, grasses, and plants. Seasonal allergies caused by pollens only come at specific times of the year.

Pollen allergies are not only prevalent during the spring. During the summer—or when the days are hot, windy, and dry—a lot of pollen swirl around in the air, ready for inhalation by unsuspecting seasonal allergy sufferers. Rainy days can also be the cause of pollen allergies since a lot of this plant material is washed down to the ground by the rain.

Some people are also allergic to the fur or dander of household pets like cats and dogs. Others experience seasonal allergies when exposed to dust mites, which can be quite prevalent during dry, windy days. Cockroaches and molds are also common culprits of seasonal allergies. These allergens are usually confined indoors, affecting patients the whole year round.

Some patients also encounter allergens in the workplace. Wood dust, animals used in the lab for research, cereal grain, and certain chemicals and fumes, can cause the immune system to overreact.

When a person with seasonal allergies encounters these allergens, the immune system will release a variety of biochemical substances that will cause inflammation in the mucus membrane, or the interior layer of the nose. When this membrane is swollen, it produces more mucus, which could result in a runny nose.

Research shows that seasonal allergies can be inherited. Individuals whose both parents suffer from similar symptoms during specific parts of the year can have allergic rhinitis. Studies also show that if the patient’s mother has allergic rhinitis, the patient is more likely to have the same condition.

In some people, allergic rhinitis can also be caused by ingesting certain types of foods.

Key Symptoms

It is easy to mistake the symptoms of allergic rhinitis with the common cold because they are quite similar. When the patient is exposed to allergens, he or she will experience difficulty in smelling things, a runny nose, plenty of sneezing, watery eyes, and itchiness in the nose, eyes, mouth, throat, or skin. Some patients can also experience congestion in the nose, coughing, clogged ears, puffiness or darkness around the eyes, sore throat, headaches, and feelings of tiredness and irritability.

Who to See and Types of Treatment Available

Symptoms of seasonal allergies are usually relatively minor and do not warrant a trip to the emergency room. A family doctor or a general practitioner should be able to prescribe medication if needed or to dispense tips regarding little things that the patient can do to help manage the symptoms.

Perhaps the best treatment for seasonal allergies is leading a life free of allergens. Of course, it might be difficult to completely avoid all allergens in the air, but a bit more caution can go a long way. Reducing dust and dust mites inside the home, as well as molds, can definitely help. Regular cleaning and vacuuming the house is a simple step that can reduce the occurrence of seasonal allergies.

Installing air filters inside the home, replacing furniture and upholstery, rugs, carpets, and other textiles with hypoallergenic ones, and using dehumidifiers can also help. Staying indoors during pollen season can reduce the occurrence of seasonal allergies.

Medication can also work in calming the symptoms down. Antihistamines are quite common, and can be purchased over the counter. Antihistamines can come in liquid, capsule, or pill form, but can usually cause drowsiness. Newer formulations of antihistamines no longer cause sleepiness, and should be taken if the patient needs to perform important tasks.

Nasal sprays can also work, but are only available with a prescription.

References:

  • Frew AJ. Allergen immunotherapy. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2010;125(2 Suppl 2):S306-13.

  • Greiner AN, Hellings PW, Rotiroti G, Scadding GK. Allergic rhinitis. Lancet. 2011;378(9809):2112-2122.

  • Corren J, Baroody FM, Pawankar R. Allergic and non-allergic rhinitis. In: Adkinson NF Jr., Bochner BS, Burks AW, et al., eds. In: Middleton's Allergy Principles and Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2013:chap 42.

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