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A Guide to Seasonal Allergies: Symptoms, Causes, Treatments, Prevention & More

By Edo Paz, MD bool(true)
Medically reviewed
April 28, 2021

Seasonal allergies are often recognized by their recurring symptoms during a particular season or time of year. Sometimes called “hay fever,” seasonal allergies can cause mild to severe symptoms and affect people of all ages at different times of the year.

In this article, I’ll describe the different symptoms of seasonal allergies, the various causes, and how to treat them with medication and natural remedies. Finally, I’ll cover common prevention options and when to see a doctor to determine which treatment course may be right for you.

What are Seasonal Allergies?

Seasonal allergies refer to symptoms (including stuffy nose, sneezing, itchy eyes) that occur during certain seasons or times of the year.

Seasonal allergies occur because your immune system reacts to a typically harmless substance, like mold spores or pollen particles, causing symptoms in the nose, throat, eyes, ears, skin, and roof of the mouth. 

People can develop seasonal allergies at any age, though seasonal allergies usually develop by the time an individual is 10 years old and peak when they’re in their early 20s. In most people, symptoms will disappear later in adulthood.

Seasonal allergies are very common – 10-30% of adults in the US experience them.

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Symptoms

The most common symptoms of seasonal allergies include:

  • Itching in the nose, roof of the mouth, throat, or eyes
  • Sneezing
  • Stuffy nose
  • Runny nose
  • Tearing eyes
  • Dark circles under the eyes
  • Ear congestion

Though less common, additional symptoms can include:

  • Headache
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Coughing

Your doctor may diagnose seasonal allergies based on your symptoms, health history, and the time of year your symptoms present, or they may recommend seeing an allergist or immunologist for a skin or blood test to determine the trigger/s of your seasonal allergies (known as allergens).

How long do allergies last?

The length of your symptoms will vary from person-to-person, depending largely on the season or seasons in which your symptoms appear.

For most, symptoms flare up at the start of the season during which they’re most allergic and lessen as the season comes to a close.

For those with perennial seasonal allergies, symptoms can persist year-round.

Causes

Seasonal allergies are caused when your immune system identifies a typically harmless airborne substance as dangerous and reacts by releasing histamines and other chemicals into your bloodstream, which then produces an allergic reaction in your body.

Most often, seasonal allergies are triggered by pollen particles released in the air during different times of the year in different parts of the country. 

Depending on the season in which you experience symptoms—keep in mind that some people may be allergic during multiple seasons—your allergies may be caused by one or more of the following types of plant pollen:

  • Tree pollen: Responsible for the majority of springtime allergies. Depending on your location, you may be allergic to the pollen of birch, cedar, alder, horse chestnut, willow or poplar trees.
  • Grass pollen: Summertime allergies—the most common time of year for seasonal allergies—are generally triggered by the pollen of grasses and some weeds, including ryegrass and timothy grass.
  • Ragweed pollen: Native to temperate regions in North and South America, ragweed pollen is responsible for most autumnal allergies. For some, the symptoms of this seasonal allergy can be particularly severe.

Because most plants go dormant during winter, most people who suffer from seasonal allergies feel relief during this time of year.

However, additional triggers can be found indoors, including:

  • Dried skin flakes
  • Urine and saliva found on pet dander
  • Mold
  • Droppings from dust mites
  • Cockroach particles
  • Smoke
  • Strong odors
  • Changes in the temperature or humidity of the air

If you’re allergic to any of these common indoor triggers, you may have perennial seasonal allergies, which can cause symptoms year-round.

Treatment Options

Once your doctor, allergist, or immunologist identifies the specific allergens that trigger your symptoms, they will work with you to develop a plan to reduce or eliminate those symptoms. 

Medication

There are several medication options that can help improve the symptoms of seasonal allergies. 

  • Antihistamine pills: Available over-the-counter (OTC) and via prescription, there are many antihistamine pill options (including brand name options like Zyrtec and Allegra) that can treat seasonal allergy symptoms.
  • Nasal corticosteroid sprays: Nasal corticosteroid sprays, including those sold under the brand names Flonase and Nasacort, are an effective preventive treatment option for nasal symptoms including nasal congestion, post nasal drip, sneezing, and an itchy and runny nose. Because corticosteroid sprays work to reduce inflammation in the nasal passages, they are one of the most effective types of medication for preventing symptoms of seasonal allergies.
  • Nasal antihistamine sprays: These sprays take effect faster than corticosteroid sprays and work by blocking the effects of histamine in your body. 
  • Decongestant pills: These OTC pills can bring temporary relief from congestion by causing blood vessels to constrict, but they won’t treat the underlying cause of allergies.
  • Nasal decongestant sprays: Decongestant sprays (including brand name options like Afrin and Sinex) work by shrinking blood vessels that line the nose. They are short-term solutions to treat nasal allergy symptoms and should not be used for a period longer than three days.
  • Immunotherapy: Also called allergy shots, immunotherapy is a proven treatment that can provide long-term relief from symptoms. Keep in mind that this type of treatment must be supervised by a medical professional and cannot be administered at home.
  • Sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT) allergy tablets: An alternative to allergy shots, these tables administer the medication under the tongue and can be taken at-home, often on a daily basis. 

Most preventive seasonal allergy medications work best if started before the season in which your symptoms develop.

So, if you know you’re allergic to tree pollen in the spring, starting your preventive medication at the end of the winter season, before you come in contact with springtime allergens, will often yield the best results.

Natural remedies

In addition to the medications available, there are some natural remedies that have been shown to be helpful in the treatment and prevention of seasonal allergy symptoms.

  • Acupuncture: A review of 13 studies found that acupuncture can produce a significant reduction in nasal symptoms and improve the overall quality of life in people with seasonal allergies.
  • Sinus rinsing: Rinsing the sinuses with a neti pot or another nasal drainage system is a common at-home treatment option.
  • Herbal therapies: Studies of herbal therapies, like butterbur, indicate some benefit for seasonal allergy symptoms.
  • Probiotics: Though the overall evidence on probiotics for the treatment of seasonal allergies is inconsistent, a systematic review of randomized controlled trials from 2008 found that certain types of probiotics might be helpful in reducing symptom severity and medication use in those with non-perennial seasonal allergies.

Can you get rid of allergies?

For most people, medications can significantly reduce your allergy symptoms. Using these treatments before symptoms appear may prevent your symptoms from appearing. In addition, there are some immunotherapy options, like allergy shots, which can get rid of allergies.

Prevention

Working with your doctor or medical professional is the best way to find the right treatment approach for preventing your seasonal allergies.

Some of the most common approaches include:

  • Be proactive with medications: When applicable, take your medication before the start of your triggering season.
  • Reduce your exposure to outdoor allergens: If pollen is the culprit behind your seasonal allergies, you can reduce your exposure by staying indoor on dry, windy days during your triggering season. In this case, the best time to go outside is after the rain, when water helps to clear pollen from the air. Once you return home, remove clothes you’ve worn outside and take a shower to rinse any pollen from your skin and hair.
  • Don’t dry laundry outdoors: Avoid drying laundry outdoors, as pollen can stick to clothes, sheets, and towels.
  • Wear a pollen mask: If you need to go outside on a dry or windy day, you can wear a pollen mask to reduce your exposure.
  • Clean indoor air: Using air purifiers or medical grade purifying filters in your central heating or air conditioner can help reduce pollen and other indoor allergens from your home.

How K Health Can Help 

K Health provides a simple, accessible option for allergies treatment. Chat with a doctor on your phone to determine whether you indeed have allergies, and get a prescription sent straight to your pharmacy, all for just $19.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long do allergies last?
The length of your symptoms will vary from person-to-person, depending largely on the season or seasons in which your symptoms appear. For most, symptoms flare up at the start of the season during which they’re most allergic and lessen as the season comes to a close. For those with perennial seasonal allergies, symptoms can persist year-round.
What do allergies feel like?
Symptoms of seasonal allergies often include nasal congestion, sneezing, tearing eyes, and itching in the nose, roof of the mouth, throat, or eyes.
When do seasonal allergies start?
The start of your seasonal allergies depends on which triggers (known as allergens) are responsible. The most common time of year for seasonal allergies is summertime, but they can happen at any time during the year.
What triggers seasonal allergies?
The most common trigger of seasonal allergies is pollen, including tree pollen, grass pollen, and ragweed pollen. Other triggers can include mold, urine and saliva from pet dander, and dried skin flakes.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Edo Paz, MD

Edo Paz is the VP of Medical at K Health. Dr. Paz has two degrees in chemistry from Harvard and an MD from Columbia University. He did his medical training in internal medicine and cardiology at New York-Presbyterian. In addition to his work at K Health, Dr. Paz is a cardiologist at Heartbeat Health, a cardiology practice located in New York City.