Think of it as a case of mistaken identity on the part of your immune system. Allergy symptoms are caused by your body's reaction to substances that your immune system sees as a danger and tries to ward off by creating inflammation and a cascade of symptoms like sneezing and wheezing.
You can be allergic to many things. When foods and medications are allergens, they present a threat year-round. When your allergies kick in because of substances found in nature, like mold spores and pollen, they’re considered seasonal, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI). You might think of spring and fall as key times for allergic rhinitis, better known as hay fever, but some allergens peak in the summer and others can bother you 12 months a year, depending on where you live.
Here’s what you need to know about seasonal allergies
- Pollen: Plant pollen is bothersome when it’s the powdery type because it can be picked up and easily carried along by wind, notes the AAAAI. In more northern areas of the United States, the main allergen in early spring is tree pollen, in late spring and early summer it's grass pollen, and in late summer and fall it’s the weed pollen responsible for hay fever. In warmer, more southern areas of the country, these pollens can be a source of annoyance most any time of the year.
- Mold spores: These spores can live in plants, rotting trees and soil and can become airborne, just like pollen. Mold spores become more prevalent as springtime vegetation grows. While their numbers peak in mid-summer in warm states, this doesn’t happen in colder states until mid-fall. What’s more, if you live on the west coast or in the south, they can bother you year-round.
And in case you're wondering if moving to another part of the country might be the answer to your seasonal allergies, the AAAAI says no. Not only are grass pollens and mold spores very widespread, you also could end up subjecting yourself to a whole new set of allergens in the new location.
Home remedies for allergies
There’s a lot you can do to help yourself deal with your allergies, from ways to reduce your exposure to lifestyle steps that ease symptoms. But here’s an important caveat: If your symptoms are severe, work with your doctor or an allergist to find the best solutions rather than relying on over-the-counter (OTC) medications and self-care alone. Overusing certain OTC products, like nasal sprays, for instance, can worsen symptoms, not make them go away.
Whether or not you need medication, start by making the following steps part of your relief regimen:
1. Reduce your exposure to allergy triggers
- Check daily pollen counts. They’re often part of your local morning weather report, but you can easily find the pollen count in your area by going to the AAAAI-certified National Allergy Bureau at www.aaaai.org/nab. When practical, your best bet is to avoid exposure to the allergens that make you ill. That means staying inside as much as possible on dry, windy days — these aren’t the days to garden or rake leaves. Keep windows and doors closed to keep pollen out of your home. You’re less likely to be affected on cloudy and rainy days and days when there’s little wind because pollen is less likely to be airborne, according to the AAAAI.
- Take precautions when you must go out, especially on high pollen days. Afternoons will be less problematic than mornings when pollen is at its worst, according to the Mayo Clinic. Consider wearing a pollen mask if your symptoms are severe, and take any allergy medications before leaving home to preempt symptoms. When you get home, leave your shoes at the door to avoid tracking pollen inside. Take off and wash and dry the clothes you wore, and shower and shampoo to wash off any pollen on you to keep it from getting on furniture, including your bed.
2. Rid your home of seasonal allergens
- Trap allergens more effectively. Despite your best efforts, pollen can find its way into your home. Try clearing the air by using air conditioning (use the A/C when you’re in your car, too). HEPA filters are made to trap the smallest particles, so use them in your HVAC system and in your vacuum cleaner, and replace them often, suggests the Mayo Clinic. High humidity “fuels” mold spores, so invest in a dehumidifier if your home is damp.
- Protect your bed for better sleep. Exposure to allergens in your bedroom can keep you from getting restful sleep. There’s even a term for it: allergic fatigue. Because it’s hard to see pollen and other allergens in your home, encase your mattress, box spring and pillows in allergy-proof zippered covers and wash them once a week along with your other linens, suggests the AAAAI.
3. Experiment with natural remedies
- Try saline nasal rinses. Looking for alternatives to antihistamines and decongestants? Using a neti pot or another irrigation device from the drugstore to flush mucus and allergens out your nasal passages can help with congestion. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), a study review found that daily use during allergy season helped reduce nasal symptoms and the use of allergy medications while improving quality of life. To avoid exposing yourself to unwanted bacteria, it’s important to use only bottled, distilled or otherwise sterilized water for the process — never plain tap water — and to thoroughly clean the equipment with soap and water after every use and let it air-dry, states the Mayo Clinic. You can buy premeasured packets of a saline mixture to add to sterilized water for making the solution at most drugstores. Always follow package directions.
- Use steam to open nasal passages. Fill a bowl or sink with very hot water and drape a towel over your head to make a tent to hold in the steam. Stand over the water until it cools. A steaming hot shower is another option, according to the Allergy & Asthma Network.
- Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. This has the added benefit of keeping mucus more fluid so it will drain more easily, according to the Allergy & Asthma Network.
- Be careful about supplements. Many have little or no evidence behind them, but some people have found relief from supplements containing extract of the butterbur shrub. The research is limited, but butterbur appears to be safe, according to the NCCIH.
- Consider probiotics. Some research has found that probiotics — the type of helpful bacteria in yogurt — may help ease symptoms. But because different studies have used different combinations of strains, the effects are likely to vary by probiotic blend. If you want to try this, it’s likely to take some trial and error to see which formula works, if at all, for you.
4. Reach for OTC relief
As part of self-care, nonprescription medications may help ease your allergy symptoms when other steps aren’t enough.
- Antihistamines like loratadine (Claritin, Alavert), cetirizine (Zyrtec Allergy) and fexofenadine (Allegra Allergy) can help relieve sneezing, itching, a runny nose and watery eyes, according to the Mayo Clinic.
- Decongestants such as pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) can clear a stuffy nose. Be careful though, as this medication has many side effects and drug interactions. Check with your doctor before starting any new medication, especially if you experience any unusual symptoms or have a pre-existing medical condition.
- For a one-two punch, you might try a combination antihistamine and decongestant like pseudoephedrine and loratadine (Claritin-D) or pseudoephedrine and fexofenadine (Allegra-D).
When home remedies aren’t enough
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, it’s hard to give allergies the boot on your own. Working with your doctor or an allergist can reinforce all the steps you’re taken and help you find greater relief.
A doctor-prescribed allergy attack plan might start with testing to pinpoint your specific allergens and then personalizing treatment to your needs. Your doctor can also determine if you’re a candidate for immunotherapy, treatment to reset your immune system. Allergy shots used to be the only option, but a newer alternative involves taking a daily medication, starting before allergy season begins and continuing until it ends. The treatment is called sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT) because the pill is placed under the tongue, according to AAAAI. There are currently three medications that target different pollens: Ragwitek for ragweed; Oralair for sweet vernal, orchard, perennial rye, Timothy and Kentucky blue grass; and Grastek for Timothy grass. The goal is that, after three to five years, you will become immune to the allergen, explains AAAAI.
Home remedy takeaways
Lifestyle steps are helpful natural remedies for seasonal allergies:
- The best therapy is to avoid your allergens, so minimize the amount of time spent outside on days with a high pollen count.
- When you do go out, do your best to leave pollen at the front door when you come back in. Change clothes and shower right away. Make the shower steamy, and you’ll also help clear your nasal passages.
- Saline nose rinses can flush allergens and reduce the amount of medication you need.
- Be careful with supplements, but probiotics and butterbur have some science behind them.
- American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, Outdoor Allergens https://www.aaaai.org/conditions-and-treatments/library/allergy-library/outdoor-allergens
- Mayo Clinic, Hay Fever In Depth https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hay-fever/in-depth/seasonal-allergies/art-20048343
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, Seasonal Allergies and Complementary Health Approaches: What the Science Says https://nccih.nih.gov/health/providers/digest/allergies, https://nccih.nih.gov/health/providers/digest/allergies-science#heading1
- Neti pot, CVS (as an example) https://www.cvs.com/shop/cvs-health-sinus-wash-neti-pot-kit-prodid-896024
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, Butterbur https://nccih.nih.gov/health/butterbur
- Mayo Clinic, Allergy Medications: Know Your Options https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/allergies/in-depth/allergy-medications/art-20047403
- Food and Drug Administration, Grastek https://www.fda.gov/vaccines-blood-biologics/allergenics/grastek
- American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, AAAAI Allergy and Asthma Medication Guide https://www.aaaai.org/conditions-and-treatments/drug-guide/sublingual-immunotherapy-slit-tablet
- American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, Sublingual Immunotherapy https://acaai.org/allergies/allergy-treatment/allergy-immunotherapy/sublingual-immunotherapy-slit
- Allergy and Asthma Network, Understanding Allergies https://www.allergyasthmanetwork.org/outreach/publications/special-publications/understanding-allergies/
- American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, Indoor Allergens https://www.aaaai.org/conditions-and-treatments/library/allergy-library/indoor-allergens