Finally, spring has sprung. It’s warming up nicely, the birds are singing, the flowers are blooming and all is well in the world. Unfortunately though, for many of us this is the start of the allergy season proper. As nature goes into overdrive up goes the pollen count and so begins the familiar itching and snuffling.
Seasonal allergy, allergic rhinitis or hayfever – call it what you like – this can be a miserable part of the year if you are a sufferer. In the region of 25% of the population are affected to some degree by these allergies that begin in Spring.
When you are affected is a major indicator as to what is causing your spring allergy. Whilst it will almost certainly be one or more types of pollen, different plants release theirs at different times of the season. Despite the common misconception that garden flowers are the source of your allergy it is actually pollen from trees, grasses and certain weeds which most often trigger hayfever.
As a rule trees release their pollen throughout spring whilst grasses and weeds tend to begin in May and continue through the summer (and beyond). However, spring allergies can begin as early as February in some places after a mild winter.
Tree pollen causes most spring allergies
If your allergy is to tree pollen then it is likely your symptoms will be at their worst from March to May. The most common spring allergy culprits are:
- Box elder
- Horse chestnut
Many of these species of trees begin releasing their pollen in small quantities before spring. However, all have a peak season where the amount of pollen released increases exponentially and this tends to be throughout spring.
If you do think you have a spring pollen allergy then you may well notice it is worse some days and goes away at other times. There are several factors which can affect the extent of your symptoms, these include:
- Time of day: Pollen levels tend to be at there highest in the morning (between 5am and 10am)
- Rain: The rain washes pollen away and prevents it becoming airborne. However, the pollen count is likely to shoot up after rainfall
- Wind: If there is no wind the pollen remains grounded. On windy days the opposite is true and the pollen count is often highest
Common symptoms of spring allergies
The symptoms of a spring allergy often appear immediately after exposure to the pollen and are similar to those of the common cold. These are:
- Runny / blocked nose
- Itchy or watery eyes
- Itchy, tickly nose
- Dark circles under the eyes
And less common:
- Itchy throat and ears
- Asthma symptoms
Usually, if you have the above symptoms during the springtime and they respond to the standard over-the-counter hayfever treatments such as antihistamines then that is a fairly clear diagnoses that you have a spring allergy. If, however, you require further confirmation then it is possible to have a skin test carried out by an allergist. This will help you to pinpoint the source of your particular allergy.
Treatment of spring allergies
Most people suffering from a spring allergy can effectively self-medicate using over-the-counter drugs. For more persistent / unresponsive symptoms your doctor or allergist may be able to help with a prescription medicine.
The main types of medicines and drugs used to treat spring allergies are as follows:
This is the go-to remedy for hay-fever. As the name suggests antihistamines work to lower the amount of histamine in the body. As this is what causes the symptoms such as sniffling, itching and sneezing they are usually highly effective. It is sometimes worth trying different types, or asking a pharmacist/doctor for their recommendations as some antihistamines can make you feel drowsy.
Whilst these don’t tackle the root cause of your allergy they may offer some relief from the symptoms. They work by constricting the blood vessels of the nasal passage which reduces the swelling and thereby the congestion. They are available either to be taken orally or as a nasal spray, which generally works quicker.
Some medications offer a combination of a decongestant and an antihistamine all in one, for example Claritin-D.
- Nasal steroid sprays
These work by tackling the problem before it occurs. Corticosteroids prevent the symptoms of hayfever developing by stopping the release of histamine (the substance released during an allergic reaction). Some steroid sprays are available over-the-counter whilst others may only be available on prescription.
- Natural remedies
Many people are uneasy with the prospect of having to take various medication year after year and seek out more natural treatments for their allergy. Whilst evidence of the effectiveness of these remedies is not unequivocal most are at worst harmless.
Examples include quercetin which is a naturally occurring chemical found in tea, onions and apples. Evidence exists that this can block the release of histamine.
Stinging nettles are said by some to have anti-allergenic properties but this is not backed up by conclusive evidence.
One of the most promising natural medicines tested is the herb butterbur. One study found this to be as effective in allergy treatment as some well known off the shelf antihistamines.
Managing spring allergies
Unfortunately there is nothing you can do to reduce the pollen count and it can be near impossible to avoid coming into contact with these allergens if you want to live a normal life. One option is to move city; apparently the pollen count in the U.S. city of Jackson, Mississippi is almost 3 times higher than that in Portland, Oregon.
Whilst this is probably not a very convenient solution for most people much of the other advice on reducing your exposure to spring allergy triggers isn’t terribly practical. Staying indoors on dry, windy days or the day after rain is not an option for many people and the thought of wearing a pollen mask is probably enough to make most people want to stay indoors!
Some of the more useful advice includes:
- Don’t hang laundry outdoors as pollen becomes attached to it
- If the pollen count is going to be high take your allergy medication in advance, before symptoms occur
- If you can avoid going out before 10am do as pollen counts are likely to be higher in the morning
- Keep doors and windows closed when the pollen count is high
- Vacuum your home twice a week using in a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter equipped filter
- Consider using a HEPA air filter at home, particularly in the bedroom