7 Tips for Surviving Spring Allergy Season
Plus, how your mask can do double duty for COVID and pollen protection.
In many respects, spring is the best time of year. There’s something so hopeful about that first warm day of spring after a long winter, when the sun is out, and the flowers are finally starting to bloom. But the re-emergence of greenery also means the re-emergence of allergy season—something objectively not worth celebrating. It’s hard to appreciate the nice weather when your eyes are itching like crazy and you can’t stop sneezing.
What Causes Seasonal Allergies?
Spring allergies, officially known as seasonal allergic rhinitis or hay fever, are often caused by pollen created when plants start to bloom. “Tree pollen starts in early spring and continues through the spring,” says Sandra Lin, M.D., vice director of Johns Hopkins Department of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery in Baltimore. “Grass pollen starts later in spring and continues into summer.” Symptoms of allergic rhinitis include frequent sneezing, stuffy nose, watery eyes, and an itching sensation around your eyes, nose, and throat.
According to 2018 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 7.7% of U.S. adults have hay fever, and that’s just the people who have received an official diagnosis. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s even harder than usual for people with allergies to avoid the outdoor air. Gathering outside is still the safest way to see friends if you and your loved ones haven’t been vaccinated yet. So, what’s a person with allergies supposed to do: sacrifice their social life or subject their respiratory system to willful torture by going to the park? It seems like a lose-lose scenario.
Seasonal Allergy Prevention
But hear us out: You don’t have to spend these next few months in misery. People with allergies can still enjoy park walks and picnics—the key here is having a strategy in place to keep your symptoms at bay. These tips can help as you plan your spring activities.
Wind is not your friend. Wind and dry air can make allergy symptoms worse (think: pollen flying around everywhere), so it’s best to stay inside on blustery days if you can manage it. Closing your windows can also help keep pollen from blowing inside your home.
Midday is a good time for a walk. “To minimize your risk of pollen exposure, I recommend staying inside during the key pollinating times, which are early in the morning and late in the afternoon,” says Mitchell Grayson, M.D., chair of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America’s Medical Scientific Council in Arlington, VA. Use your lunch break to your advantage here or plan a midday weekend gathering with your friends. (Brunch, anyone?)
Pop an OTC allergy treatment right before you step outside. “Before going outside, consider taking an antihistamine to prevent onset of symptoms,” Dr. Grayson suggests. There are plenty to choose from—Claritin (loratadine), Benadryl (diphenhydramine), or Zyrtec (cetirizine), to name a few. Just make sure not to take one that causes drowsiness before you head out for any social plans. Some nasal steroids like Nasacort (triamcinolone) are also available over the counter, though other nasal sprays require a doctor’s prescription.
Make sure the A/C filters in your house and car are clean. Sure, we all use our A/C units during the hotter months, but how many of us clean them regularly? The U.S. Department of Energy recommends cleaning or replacing the filter in your A/C every month or so during the season you typically use it. Not only does this allow the machine to work better (thus reducing your energy costs), but it helps ensure the air you breathe inside your home is clean and allergen-free.
Masks can help with allergy prevention. We’re entering our second spring with the COVID-19 pandemic in our lives, which means we’re all pretty used to wearing masks by now. Not only do masks help protect you against COVID-19 infection, but they also reduce your exposure to allergens. A study in late 2020 in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: In Practice found that healthcare workers who wore masks during their shifts reported fewer symptoms of allergic rhinitis within just one week.
Rinse off once you come back inside. Just got back in from a run and feeling sniffly? Dr. Lin suggests hopping in the shower ASAP to remove pollen on your skin. At the very least, change and wash your clothes to get rid of any pollen residue. Oh, and while we’re on the subject of clothes, try to avoid hanging them outdoors to dry during allergy season. They can pick up pollen in the process.
Don’t be afraid to seek out an allergist if needed. The first-line treatment approach is limiting exposure to allergens, but if that isn’t cutting it for you, it might be time to see a specialist. “If these simple interventions don’t control your symptoms, I recommend reaching out to your provider or seeing an allergist for further evaluation and treatment,” Dr. Grayson suggests. They’ll prescribe either a nasal spray, an oral steroid if really necessary and if your symptoms are very severe, or an immunotherapy regimen.
Dr. Lin describes how immunotherapy works: “An allergic person under care of a specialist gets small, controlled amounts of allergen over a period of time, which has the result of increasing the patient’s tolerance to the allergen and decreasing allergy symptoms.” This can be in the form of allergy shots or allergy droplets, and it’s a good long-term treatment approach for many people. However, it does require supervision by a board certified allergist.
Allergy Symptoms vs. COVID-19
Also, it's important to keep in mind these days the difference between seasonal allergy symptoms and symptoms of COVID-19. The coronavirus is considered a respiratory disease, so it can cause symptoms that appear to be sinus-related, but there are some important and subtle differences that can help you distinguish COVID from your usual bout of spring allergies. Visit the AAFA’s COVID-19 Resource Center for a detailed chart comparing symptoms of asthma, allergic rhinitis, COVID-19, the flu, and the common cold. And if you develop a dry cough or fever, get a COVID test ASAP.
- Allergy Statistics: American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. (2018.) “Allergy Facts.” acaai.org/news/facts-statistics/allergies
- Prevalence of Hay Fever: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018.) “Allergies and Hay Fever.” cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/allergies.htm
- A/C Maintenance: U.S. Department of Energy. (n.d.) “Maintaining Your Air Conditioner.” energy.gov/energysaver/maintaining-your-air-conditioner
- Face Masks & Allergic Rhinitis: Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: In Practice. (2020.) “Reduction of allergic rhinitis symptoms with face mask usage during the COVID-19 pandemic.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7467086/
- Allergy vs. COVID Symptoms: Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. (n.d.) “COVID-19 Resource Center.” aafa.org/asthma/asthma-triggers/other-health-conditions/respiratory-infections/covid-19-new-coronavirus.aspx