Allergy is one of the most common long-term health conditions. "Over the past several decades, the prevalence of allergies has been increasing," says Dr. Paivi Salo, an allergy expert at NIH.
A change in season can brighten your days with vibrant new colors. But blooming flowers and falling leaves can usher in more than beautiful backdrops. Airborne substances that irritate your nose can blow in with the weather. When sneezing, itchy eyes, or a runny nose suddenly appears, allergies may be to blame.
Allergies arise when the body’s immune system overreacts to substances, called allergens, that are normally harmless. When a person with allergies breathes in allergens—such as pollen, mold, pet dander, or dust mites—the resulting allergic reactions in the nose are called allergic rhinitis, or hay fever.
Allergy is one of the most common long-term health conditions. “Over the past several decades, the prevalence of allergies has been increasing,” says Dr. Paivi Salo, an allergy expert at NIH. “Currently, airborne allergies affect approximately 10-30% of adults and 40% of children.”
Avoiding your allergy triggers is the best way to control your symptoms. But triggers aren’t always easy to identify. Notice when and where your symptoms occur. This can help you figure out the cause.
“Most people with allergies are sensitive to more than one allergen,” Salo explains. “Grass, weed, and tree pollens are the most common causes of outdoor allergies.” Pollen is often the source if your symptoms are seasonal. Indoor allergens usually trigger symptoms that last all year.
If your symptoms become persistent and bothersome, visit your family physician or an allergist. They can test for allergy sensitivities by using a skin or blood test. The test results, along with a medical exam and information about when and where your symptoms occur, will help your doctor determine the cause.
Even when you know your triggers, avoiding allergens can be difficult. When pollen counts are high, stay inside with the windows closed and use the air conditioning. Avoid bringing pollen indoors. “If you go outside, wash your hair and clothing,” Salo says. Pets can also bring in pollen, so clean them too.
For indoor allergens, keep humidity levels low in the home to keep dust mites and mold under control. Avoid upholstered furniture and carpets because they harbor allergens. Wash your bedding in hot water, and vacuum the floors once a week.
Allergies run in families. Your children’s chances of developing allergies are higher if you have them. While there’s no “magic bullet” to prevent allergies, experts recommend breast feeding early in life. “Breast milk is the least likely to trigger allergic reactions, it’s easy to digest, and it strengthens an infant’s immune system,” Salo says.
Sometimes, avoiding allergens isn’t possible or isn’t enough. Untreated allergies are associated with chronic conditions like sinus infections and asthma. Over-the-counter antihistamines, nasal sprays, and decongestants can often ease mild symptoms. Prescription medications and allergy shots are sometimes needed for more severe allergies. Talk with your doctor about treatment options.
Allergy relief can help clear up more than just itchy, watery eyes. It can allow you to breathe easy again and brighten your outlook on seasonal changes.
Article contributed by NIH Office of Communications and Public Liaison
Editor: Harrison Wein, Ph.D.
Managing Editor: Vicki Contie
Contributors: Vicki Contie, Alan Defibaugh (illustrations), Claire Donnelly, and Tianna Hicklinn.