If you suffer from the sneezing, runny and itchy nose and eyes and constant coughing that comes with seasonal allergies, you know exactly how miserable this problem can make you. But why do allergies happen in the first place — and what can you do to treat them? Read on to find out!

What are Seasonal Allergies?

Okay, the best way to understand just what seasonal allergies are is to start with your immune system. Your immune system is an important part of your body: it protects you from things like bacteria or viruses that can get inside your body and make you sick. It does this by identifying certain things – like these microorganisms — as dangerous. It then mounts an attack against these things to keep you safe.

However, sometimes your immune system makes a mistake and thinks that something like pollen from trees is dangerous when it really isn’t.  But your immune system will create antibodies to help kill off the pollen and the next time you are exposed to it (such as when you go outside and play at recess), your body will mount a defense called an immune system response and release chemicals like histamines to try to protect itself. These histamines are the substances which cause the unfortunate signs and symptoms we cover in the next session.

What are the Symptoms of Seasonal Allergies?

If you do have seasonal allergies or know someone who does, you know how uncomfortable and difficult to live with these symptoms can be:

  • Itchy, runny nose
  • Post-nasal drainage
  • Sneezing (something uncontrollable)
  • Coughing (sometimes you will cough things up but sometimes this can be a dry cough that makes your throat itchy and will not go away)
  • Itchy, red, swollen eyes with dark discoloration beneath them
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea (due to the post-nasal drainage)

What Can Set off Seasonal Allergies?

For many people, seasonal allergies are the worst in the spring, summer and fall, when high counts of pollen from grass, trees and plants like ragweed.  However, the winter can be a problem, too, since when the house is cut from the weather and people begin to shut doors and windows, indoor allergens like pet dander and dust can build up in the home and make the problem worse.  If you are just allergic to something like ragweed or oak pollen, your allergies might just be bad for a few weeks out of the year in the spring or the fall.  For some people, however, the “allergy season” lasts much longer.

Who is at Risk for Seasonal Allergies?

There are certain things that can put people at risk for having seasonal allergies. These include:

  • Having other allergies, such as an allergy to certain foods
  • Having asthma
  • Having a skin condition called eczema (which is also called atopic dermatitis)
  • Having a parent, sibling or other close relative with allergies
  • Having been exposed to cigarette smoke as a baby

Can Seasonal Allergies Cause Complications?

There are a number of complications that can be caused by seasonal allergies:

  • Feeling tired all the time because you can’t sleep well
  • Avoiding activities you enjoy (like playing outside with your friends) because it bothers your allergies
  • Getting infections in the your sinuses, throat or ears
  • Feeling sick to your stomach or throwing up due to post-nasal drainage
  • More frequent asthma attacks

How Does a Doctor Diagnose Seasonal Allergies?

Often, if your family doctor thinks that you are suffering from seasonal allergies, he or she will probably send you to an allergist,  doctor who specializes in helping people with allergies better manage their symptoms.  The allergist will perform a skin test, where a small amount of allergens are injected right below the surface of your skin. After half an hour, the allergist will come back and take a look at the injection sites: if you have raised, red areas where a certain allergen has been injected, that means that you are allergic to that substance.

The doctor can also have a small sample of blood drawn to look for the presence of antibodies that will also give important information about what you are allergic to.

How is this Problem Treated?

The good news is that there are a lot of different ways that a doctor or allergist can treat this problem.  Treatment options include:

  • Antihistamines like Benadryl, which block the release of histamines in the body and help to reduce allergy signs and symptoms.
  • Steroid nasal spray to help reduce nasal symptoms and improve breathing.
  • Immunotherapy, or allergy shots, are another option. Over the course of time, these shots expose the immune system to the allergens so that the system is able to build up a tolerance to the dander, pollen or other substances. This is a great therapy because it treats the underlying problem of allergies — flaws in the immune system itself.

Once you have had a diagnosis made, your allergist can sit down and talk to you and your family about the best course of action.  He or she will also recommend ways to reduce exposure to allergens, such as vacuuming and dusting often, keeping pets out of the house, washing bedclothes weekly and other way to help manage this problem.

In short, seasonal allergies can bring on symptoms that make it hard to cope with everyday life, especially due to their effect on the quality of sleep and the constant tiredness they cause. However, the good news is that once they are diagnosed, your family and allergist can come up with a game plan to keep the symptoms under control — and help you get back to a regular life.