Seasonal allergies and quality of life
Seasonal allergies (also referred to as allergic rhinitis and hay fever) are a common condition that can impair a person’s quality of life by producing symptoms such as stuffy or runny nose, breathing impairments (including asthma), cough, itchiness, sore throat, sinus pressure, and fatigue. Symptoms can also impair cognitive function, productivity, sleep, and mood.
Research into the quality of life of allergy sufferers has shown that seasonal allergies can have a negative effect on a person’s performance at home, school, and work as well. And since many people suffer from seasonal allergies for more than half the year, it is important to take allergies seriously and be proactive when it comes to identifying, avoiding, and treating them. This is particularly the case for children whose academic performance can be affected by allergies.
According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, roughly 7.8% of people over 18 in the U.S. suffer from seasonal allergies. Worldwide, these symptoms affect between 10% and 40% of the population.
Understanding and identifying allergy triggers
Allergy triggers can vary by season, but as the weather changes and warm seasons last longer, you might notice that your symptoms extend well past Spring, Summer, and Fall and well into the Winter months. It is critical to keep track of when and where your allergies occur and work with an allergy specialist to identify your specific triggers.
The main causes of spring allergies are tree pollen, grass pollen, and mold. Birch, hickory, cedar, cypress, poplar, and walnut are common culprits when it comes to seasonal tree pollen allergies. Bermuda Grass, Johnson Grass, Kentucky Bluegrass, Orchard Grass, Red Top Grass, Sweet Vernal Grass, and Timothy Grass are the most common grass allergy culprits.
Mold allergies can be a problem both indoors and outside and wherever moisture is a problem. These tiny fungi are a problem in piles of leaves, rotting wood, and soil, so it is easy to be exposed to them when you are doing yardwork.
In Summer, grass and weed pollen as well as mold are the most common allergy triggers.
There are 17 different species of ragweed alone and many weeds release allergy-inducing pollen, including cockleweed, pigweed, sagebrush, Russian thistle, lamb’s quarters, and tumbleweed.
While Fall is generally a time when allergies calm down, longer warm seasons mean pollen or ragweed is still an issue into September and October. In warmer climates it can be an issue into November and even December. Fall is also the time when we begin to disturb wet, fallen leaves that harbor mold.
In Fall and Winter, we tend to close up our homes, meaning that indoor triggers such dust mites, pet dander, and indoor mold can affect you most severely. Indoor allergies can come from your house, workplace, or your child’s school and can include everything from fireplace smoke to holiday décor such as Christmas trees brought indoors.
Tracking your seasonal allergies
Paying attention to when and where your allergies occur can help you identify and avoid triggers. Simply keeping an allergy diary can help you identify days and times when allergies are worse so you know when to close windows or avoid the outdoors altogether. You can also track the treatments you have tried at different times of year to see if your medication needs tweaking at different times of the year.
You can also download apps to your smartphone that track your local pollen count or tell you what conditions are like when you travel. This can be important if you plan to take a trip that involves a lot of outdoor activity and need to know what kind of prophylactic measures to take and – specifically – what antihistamines or steroid sprays to pack.
Seasonal allergy relief
There are a variety of options for those who suffer from allergies, ranging from avoidance to immunotherapy. It is always best to talk to an allergy specialist before medicating yourself, but a variety of options are available over the counter if you need a quick remedy for a sudden problem.
Over-the-counter allergy treatment options include:
- Oral antihistamines which help relieve sneezing, itching, runny nose and watery eyes.
- Oral decongestants such as pseudoephedrine that can give you temporary relief from nasal congestion.
- Decongestants in the form of nasal sprays that contain oxymetazoline and phenylephrine. It is important to limit the use of these to just a few days, otherwise you will experience a rebound effect that can make your symptoms worse in the long-term.
- Nasal sprays containing cromolyn sodium that have fewer side effects but are most effective when used before symptoms begin.
- Combination medications that include both an antihistamine and a decongestant combat multiple symptoms.
- Nasal irrigation with squeeze bottles or neti pots can rinse nasal passages and flush out mucus and allergens from your nose. However, it is crucial that you use distilled, sterile, or filtered water in these devices and ensure that they dry out between uses, otherwise mold can grow and cause much more dangerous conditions.
Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding or those taking other medications should still clear the use of over-the-counter medications with their doctors.
Allergen immunotherapy (including allergy shots) are another option for dealing with allergic rhinitis, allergic conjunctivitis, allergy-related asthma, and insect sting allergies. The vast majority (up to 90%, by some accounts) of patients receiving immunotherapy see a significant reduction in allergy symptoms and the reduced need for medication.
Your allergy specialist will determine whether or not you or your child is a good candidate for immunotherapy and are more likely to prescribe it in the following situations:
- Symptoms are moderate to severe and occur for several months of the year
- Symptoms have not responded well to medications and triggers are difficult to avoid
- The side effects of medications cannot be tolerated
While looking for alternative allergy treatments is common among allergy sufferers, it is important to consult a doctor. These interventions are not subject to oversight and are not monitored by professionals in any way and could end up doing more harm than good.
Some alternative treatments, such as acupuncture, have very little scientific evidence to back them up but have a very low chance of harmful side effects.
Things that could be making your seasonal allergies worse
Seasonal allergy triggers include:
- Clothing and shoes brought into the home with pollen, dust, or dander on them
- Other indoor allergies from dust mites (which commonly hide in bedding, upholstery, carpets, and even stuffed animals)
- Cockroach droppings
- Smoke from fireplaces and woodburning stoves
- Holiday décor including Christmas trees
- Fragrances, candles, and other irritants in your home or in shopping centers
- Schools and workplaces (including coworkers and classmates that have pets, for example)
- Cleaning products
Getting sleep while suffering from seasonal allergies
If your bed is the source of allergens such as pet dander and dust mites, your sleep will undoubtedly be affected and your mornings miserable. Cleaning your bedding and putting allergen-trapping covers on pillows and mattresses will improve symptoms. Vacuuming rugs and carpets with a closed system vacuum cleaner and installing air purifiers in rooms where you spend the most time – especially those with HEPA and carbon filters – can help relieve symptoms.
Sleep is critical for all aspects of life, no matter what your age, and anyone who has lost sleep knows exactly how disruptive it can be. Anything that affects your ability to fall or stay asleep needs to be addressed because a good night’s sleep is correlated with learning, alertness during the day, cognitive and emotional functioning, and perception of general health.
Researchers who asked allergy sufferers about the outcome they most desired after treatment found that sleep ranked second after being able to breathe normally. Feeling rested during the day was also key, which can be related to sleep (but also to the sedating effects of some antihistamines).
People who experience allergy symptoms at night were also much more likely to snore, which can result in nonrestorative sleep, obstructed breathing, and even affect a couple’s relationship.
It is important to take sleep seriously and not ignore allergy triggers that can interfere with your nighttime rest.
Taking seasonal allergies seriously
Allergies can not only interfere with your cognitive performance, rest, and energy levels, but can lead to stress and anxiety. This can, in turn, lead to other mental and physical health issues and even affect your social life.
Severe allergy symptoms can have negative consequences for your education, relationships, and professional life. The inability to concentrate, missed days of work or school, being unable to take part in some social activities, and even being perceived as sick all affect quality of life.
Surprisingly, allergies also have an impact on the economy. The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology estimates that allergies cost U.S. companies roughly $250 million per year due to decreased employee productivity or absence.
Not only can allergies also negatively affect your home life, they can interfere with your ability to drive (if you have watery, itchy eyes), to stay in shape (because exercise is harder if your breathing is impaired), or to even enjoy special occasions such as vacations.
While preventing and treating allergies require effort, it is clear that it is worth the inconvenience to improve your quality of life.