Spring is heralded every year not only by the bright flowers and warming temperatures, but also by the constant sneezing, coughing and puffy eyes of those who have hay fever, more commonly known as spring allergies. 

Allergic rhinitis, or hay fever, is caused by an allergic response to common allergens — substances that cause allergies — such as pollen, and can lead to cold-like signs and symptoms. 

According to the CDC, 19.2 million adults were diagnosed with hay fever in the past 12 months.

Spring allergies are predominantly triggered by the release of pollen, which fertilizes other plants, by grasses, trees and weeds. When these pollen grains enter the body of someone with allergic rhinitis via the mouth or nose, they trigger an immune response. 

The immune system identifies the pollen as a threat to the individual, sparking the release of antibodies — protective, allergen-specific substances released by the immune system that latch onto the pollen — and histamines, chemicals that work to expel the pollen from the body. These histamines cause many of the symptoms commonly associated with spring allergies.

These symptoms include watery or puffy eyes, sneezing, coughing, dark circles under the eyes and a runny nose. The severity of symptoms may vary based on daily pollen counts, which can be found on the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology’s website. 

In general, pollen counts tend to be higher on windier days, when the breeze picks up and spreads pollen grains through the air. Rainy days, however, can wash away the allergens and provide some temporary relief.

Allergic rhinitis can be diagnosed by an allergist, who may conduct a skin test or a blood test to confirm the diagnosis. A skin test involves pricking the surface of the skin with a small amount of the allergen, which can provide the allergist with information about what specific pollens trigger allergic symptoms. A blood test involves drawing a small sample of blood from the body, which is then analyzed in a lab to measure the number of antibodies present in the blood. An elevated level of allergen-specific antibodies can indicate an allergy.

Although there is no cure for spring allergies, there are many ways to curb symptoms, both through medications and lifestyle habits. There are a wide variety of over-the-counter medications that can help with allergy symptoms, which range from oral antihistamines  — such as Zyrtec or Claritin, which can relieve sneezing and itchy eyes — to nasal sprays, which can limit nasal stuffiness and congestion. Other steps can also limit symptoms without medications:

  • Reduce exposure to pollen grains by staying indoors or wearing a pollen mask when outside
  • Check online for local pollen counts and close windows and doors when counts are high
  • Use a dehumidifier to keep the indoor air dry
  • Rinse nasal passages with saline solution to address nasal congestion
  • Shower after going outside in order to rinse pollen grains from skin and hair

If a patient is unable to go outside, or if medications cause troublesome side effects, allergy shots can also curb allergy symptoms. This process involves taking regular injections of the allergens for 3 to 5 years in order to help the immune system build a tolerance to the allergen. After this point, ongoing shots may or may not be needed to keep symptoms under control, depending on the individual.

Some potential side effects from allergy shots include local reactions, such as swelling or irritation at the injection site. These reactions are common and usually disappear within a couple of hours. Systemic reactions — including sneezing, nasal congestion and hives — are less common, but can be more severe.

According to a 2016 study published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, allergy shots are effective – participants reported a 55% decrease in hay fever symptoms, and a 64% reduction in the amount of allergy medication needed after taking the shots.

Ultimately, spring may be a time filled with constant sneezing and itchy eyes for many. Yet with proper medications and subtle changes in lifestyle habits, spring allergies can be much more manageable.

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