Clinical Editor: James Carter, III, MD
Spring has finally arrived, and with it, so has allergy season. As grass, trees, and plants start to grow and blossom, you might notice your seasonal allergies — aka hay fever — starting to flare up. If your eyes are watering more than usual, or you can’t shake that runny nose, you’re not alone. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, more than 50 million Americans experience allergies each year. Yet despite how common they are, so much misinformation around allergies persists, making it tricky to find treatments that actually work.
Understanding the best way to manage your seasonal allergies starts with debunking some of these common misconceptions. Here are six myths about allergies (and how to cope if you have them).
1. Allergies only cause respiratory symptoms.
Respiratory symptoms are par for the course if you’re allergic to something in the environment. In response to allergens, your immune system releases a substance called histamine, which can cause irritating and uncomfortable symptoms such as a runny nose, sneezing, and coughing. The truth is, though, allergies can cause symptoms throughout your body — especially if they’re left untreated.
Along with common respiratory symptoms, seasonal allergies can also cause itching in your mouth, headaches, clogged ears, fatigue, and irritability. For some people, exposure to allergens can result in pink eye. Allergies may also affect your quality of sleep, so you might find yourself feeling extra sleepy or foggy during allergy season.
2. Seasonal allergies and food allergies don’t have anything in common.
Even if you don’t have any serious food allergies, your diet can still play a role in your seasonal allergies. Some nuts, fruits, and vegetables contain proteins similar to the type of pollen you’re allergic to, which can result in an allergic response including an itchy mouth or throat or even swelling in your mouth. This is called oral allergy syndrome, or pollen food allergy syndrome.
Allergies to the following pollen types listed below may be aggravated by eating the corresponding foods:
- Birch: Apricots, cherries, nectarines, carrots, tomatoes, walnuts
- Alder: Apples, cherries, pears, peaches, celery, hazelnuts, almonds
- Grass: Melons, oranges, potatoes, and peanuts
- Ragweed: Bananas, cantaloupe, honeydew melon, cucumbers, zucchini, squash
The best way to prevent annoying seasonal allergy symptoms is to avoid these foods. If you aren’t sure what type of pollen you may be allergic or reacting to, you can also reach out to your primary care provider to discuss referral to an allergist for allergy testing.
3. Viruses and allergies have the same symptoms.
Allergies and viral infections may share some symptoms, but they’re two totally different things that stem from different causes. Allergy symptoms occur when your immune system responds to an allergen. This can cause pesky cold-like symptoms, such as a runny nose, sneezing, coughing, and even fatigue.
That said, if you’re infected with a virus, you might experience symptoms that allergies don’t cause. For example, allergies usually result in clear, runny mucus, while a viral respiratory illness usually causes thicker, often yellow or green mucus. And while colds or other infections can cause fevers, aches and pains, and sore throat, it’s uncommon for allergies to produce those symptoms. Finally, allergies are usually more persistent, lasting the entire allergy season, while a cold might only last a week.
If you’re not sure whether you’ve got allergies or you have a cold, check in with your primary care provider who can properly diagnose you and recommend a treatment to reduce your symptoms.
4. You can’t develop allergies as an adult.
Even if you’ve never had seasonal allergies in the past, you can develop them anytime you come into contact with them — even as an adult. It’s also possible to have allergies as a kid and not as an adult. Your immune system ultimately determines what you’ll have an allergic reaction to, and this can change throughout the course of your life.
Why, exactly, this happens isn’t totally clear. Some experts believe allergen exposure when your immune system function is reduced, such as during pregnancy or illness, can trigger new onset of seasonal allergies. It’s also possible to develop an allergic response to something if you weren’t exposed to it much as a kid (for example, if you moved to an area with a different type of tree pollen). That being said, it’s important to check in with your primary care provider when you notice any changes in your body or experience new symptoms. They can help you rule out any other causes and work with you to develop a care plan tailored to your unique needs.
5. Nasal sprays aren’t safe.
If you have seasonal allergies, your medical provider may recommend an antihistamine medication, which blocks the effects of the substance causing your allergic response. Another treatment option is nasal spray, which you may have heard is unsafe or even addictive.
Saline nasal sprays, which don’t contain any drugs, work by helping to remove pollen from your mucus membranes. Steroid-based nasal sprays, such as Flonase or Rhinocort, can decrease inflammation in your nasal passages and reduce discomfort associated with allergies.
Nasal sprays that contain decongestants, on the other hand, can be habit-forming and should be used with caution. The blood vessels in your mucus membranes can become dependent on these sprays, leading to congestion whenever you don’t use them. If you’re experiencing allergy symptoms, your healthcare provider can help you decide which treatment is right for you.
6. Allergies have to affect your quality of life.
While it’s true there’s no cure for allergies, you don’t have to suffer from their effects. Avoiding your known allergy triggers can play a big role in decreasing your symptoms. Keep a log of what you’re allergic to and when your symptoms arise, and do your best not to come into contact with those things. For example, if you’re allergic to tree pollen, keep tabs on when that allergen is high in your area and keep your windows closed during that time. It may also help to shower before bed if you’ve been outside to avoid transferring pollen into your sleeping environment.
There are plenty of effective treatments for allergies, too, such as nasal sprays and antihistamines. If your allergies are continually interfering with your everyday life and function, your provider might recommend allergy immunotherapy, a type of therapy that safely and gradually exposes you to the allergen you’re allergic to to help your immune system become less sensitive to it.
Whether you’ve had seasonal allergies for years or you’re just now developing symptoms, your primary care provider is the best place to start for diagnosis and treatment. Together, you and your provider can come up with a treatment plan to manage your allergies and, hopefully, improve your quality of life.
Looking to connect with a primary care provider? We’re here to help. At One Medical, our providers understand the importance of strong patient-provider relationships and will take the time to get to know you and your unique needs. Learn more about One Medical and how we can support you in your long-term health.
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