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‘Tis the Season for Sneezing

sneezing season
A woman sneezing into a handkerchief.

Your eyes are itchy, your nose is runny, and you can’t stop sneezing. The allergy season has begun. What’s the best way to find some relief? 

If you’re one of the 50 million Americans who suffers from allergies, your symptoms may bloom when the seasons shift. Seasonal allergic rhinitis (commonly known as hay fever) is usually triggered by outdoor allergens such as pollen and mold spores. When you have hay fever, your immune system responds to specific pollens as a threat. The body’s defense system kicks in, leading to symptoms such as nasal congestion; itchy, watery eyes; runny nose; tickly throat; hoarse voice; coughing and sneezing.

When does allergy season start?

The best way to treat your symptoms is to do so as soon as – and even before – they  start, said Florence Ida Hsu, MD, an allergist and immunologist with Yale New Haven Health and assistant professor of clinical medicine at Yale School of Medicine. According to Dr. Hsu, seasonal allergies fall into several groups. Tree pollen season typically begins in early April, followed by grass pollen season in May - June, and then weed pollen season in the late summer and fall months. “Obviously, these seasons are dependent on the weather and can extend in either direction,” she said. 

How can I get relief? 

If you suffer from hay fever symptoms, start taking medications before your eyes itch and your nose begins to run. “You don’t want to wait until you’re miserable to address your symptoms, because then you’re behind and trying to catch up,” Dr. Hsu said. 

Over-the-counter medications can offer relief for many people struggling with allergies. Dr. Hsu recommends non-drowsy antihistamines (such as Allegra, Claritin, Xyzal, Zyrtec or their generic counterparts) during the day for itching, sneezing and runny nose. A steroid nasal spray (such as Flonase, Rhinocort, Nasacort and their equivalents) is a first-line treatment for nasal congestion. Antihistamine eye drops (including Pataday, Zaditor and Alaway) can relief offer to dry, scratchy eyes. 

Other ways to reduce allergy symptoms 

Dr. Hsu also recommends the following steps to minimize your exposure to seasonal allergies:

  • Stay in the house if you can, particularly on windy days. Keep the windows closed in the house and in the car. 
  • If you need to spend time outdoors, the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology's allergen tracker (AAAAI) can help you plan your day. 
  • Wear a face mask when you go outside. It prevents you from inhaling larger particles of pollen. Wash the mask after each use because it may have pollen on it.
  • When outside, wear a hat to avoid getting pollen in your hair. Don a pair of sunglasses to protect your eyes.
  • If grass or moldy leaves are your triggers, avoid mowing the lawn and raking leaves, or wear a mask when doing yard work.
  • If you spend time outdoors, brush off any pollen before you go back inside. “If you are pollen-sensitive, it’s a good idea to take a bath, wash your hair, and change your clothes, especially before going to bed,” Dr. Hsu said. “Try to minimize the amount of pollen that goes from your head to your pillow, because otherwise you will be breathing it in all night.”

If over-the-counter medications aren’t helping or your symptoms are severe, you may want to contact an allergist for more specialized care, Dr. Hsu said. “Your doctor may recommend allergy testing, prescription medication, or even allergen immunotherapy, which helps your immune system build up a tolerance to allergens by exposing you to them in small and then gradually increasing doses,” she said. 

Is it allergies or COVID-19?

For those who have battled allergy symptoms in the past, the COVID-19 pandemic has tossed an added worry into the mix: Are your symptoms due to allergies or COVID-19? Dr. Hsu suggests that you look at your symptoms one at a time. If you can rule out fever, muscle aches, a loss of smell or taste, sore throat or shortness of breath – and you generally tend to experience seasonal allergies – your allergies are likely to blame. 

“If you have a runny nose, sneezing and itching, and you’re someone who often has allergy symptoms in the spring, then allergies are the likely culprit,” she said. “However, it is still wise to get tested for COVID-19 with any new symptoms, if you’ve never had allergies before, if you’re getting sicker, or if you’ve had a potential exposure to COVID.”