How to find relief from your seasonal allergy symptoms

Don’t let a runny nose and itchy eyes spoil the arrival of sunny days. Here’s everything you need to know to survive seasonal allergic rhinitis.

Created for a research-based pharmaceutical company

Each year we patiently endure the final months of winter, eagerly awaiting many of the first harbingers of spring: warm temperatures, budding flowers, cheerful birdsong. But there are others – itchy eyes, runny nose, incessant sneezing – that are less welcome. These symptoms affect at least 20% of Canadians each year, explains Dr. Jean-Nicolas Boursiquot, an allergist in Quebec and associate clinical professor at Laval University. And, he adds, seasonal allergies tend to be underdiagnosed. “This type of allergy can affect your quality of life and even cause other problems, such as disturbed sleep due to nasal congestion, but there are effective ways to get relief,” he says. We caught up with Dr. Boursiquot to better understand seasonal allergies, how to tackle the most common symptoms, and what you can do when you’ve tried everything but are still in pain.

When does allergy season start?

Seasonal allergies fall into three categories: spring allergies, which can start as early as March and last until June; summer allergies, which arrive in July and August, and autumn allergies, which can last until November.

Is it true that flowers cause most seasonal allergies?

Although many people sneeze around the flowers, it is a myth that they cause allergies. Flower pollen particles can irritate the nasal passages and cause sneezing, but they are too large to penetrate deep into the airways and trigger an allergic reaction.

So what are we most allergic to during allergy season?

In the spring, pollen from trees, especially birches and maples, is the main cause of seasonal allergic rhinitis (AKA “hay fever”). Global warming caused by climate change is making pollen season worse for allergy sufferers, as warm temperatures promote the release of pollen into the air. Once the leaves have replaced the buds on the trees, pollen is no longer a problem, but people with seasonal allergies may find themselves allergic to summer grasses and weeds, especially ragweed, ‘fall.

How do you know if you have seasonal allergies or if your sneezing and runny nose are due to a cold?

The common cold usually only lasts three to four days, while seasonal allergies last longer, sometimes weeks at a time. Colds are also often accompanied by fever and nasal discharge tends to be green or yellow while allergies produce clear secretions.

What can you do to reduce allergy symptoms caused by pollen?

We advise people not to stay indoors to avoid pollen in the air. If you have a runny nose, a sinus rinse can help remove pollen that collects in the nasal passages. About two-thirds of patients with seasonal allergies also have red, watery eyes, in which case eye drops can help moisturize the eyes, remove pollen and relieve itching. However, if you’ve tried to find relief on your own but are still experiencing symptoms, it’s best to talk to your doctor about the best way to treat them so you can enjoy the outdoors.

What should patients do if they’ve tried over-the-counter medications but still haven’t found relief for their allergy symptoms?

Patients can do just fine with oral antihistamines and environmental control, such as keeping windows closed and using air conditioning when pollen counts are high. But if that doesn’t work, they should ask their doctor what treatments might work best for them, because every patient is different and has different symptoms. There are new, fast-acting medications that provide quick relief from runny nose and itchy eyes, the two most common symptoms of seasonal allergic rhinitis.

What questions should allergy sufferers ask when talking to their doctor about their symptoms?

First, patients should share their symptoms with their doctor to see if they are consistent with seasonal allergies as opposed to a medical condition that may resemble allergies, such as chronic sinusitis. Next, the patient should ask questions about creating a “plan of action” and which medication is most likely to work best for them. There are many treatment options like oral medications, nasal sprays or allergen immunotherapy depending on each patient.

When it comes to treating allergic rhinitis, are there advantages to topical (nasal) treatments over oral (tablet) treatments?

Nasal corticosteroids or combination nasal sprays (corticosteroid and antihistamine spray) are effective in treating allergic rhinitis because they specifically target the nose as opposed to more general antihistamine pills. For my patients, I often recommend using their nasal spray at least two weeks before the onset of their allergic symptoms and then continuing daily until their allergic period usually ends.

Can you overcome seasonal allergies?

I’ve heard patients say that allergy cycles are usually only seven years long, or that allergies are only for children and you can outgrow them – that’s not true. You can develop seasonal allergies at any time in your life, whether you’re a child or an adult in your 60s, and there’s no “cycle” after which they go away. That’s why it’s best to talk to your doctor and figure out an appropriate course of action, because not all allergy sufferers are alike.

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