What We Get Wrong About Seasonal Allergies

Photographed by Lani Trock.
If you believe the hype, you'd expect spring to be a time filled with bunnies, pastels, and smiling in parks. And it may very well be that for you, but there's one dark spring secret that allergy-sufferers know well: This is when allergy symptoms tend to get turned up to 11. But the worst part is that those seasonal allergies aren't always so seasonal. In fact, depending on your specific allergens, you can have those symptoms well into fall and winter and even all year.
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Although the exact timing depends on the environment where you live, allergy triggers tend to follow a pretty predictable pattern, explains David Stukus, MD, a spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. In general, trees will pollinate first in the early spring, and you'll start to react to grasses and weeds later in the season. After that, you can expect to feel the effects of ragweed from mid-August up until late fall when the first frost occurs. From then on, mold spores will take over during the damp, rainy days of fall and winter allergies.
"The truly miserable people also have [non-seasonal] indoor allergies to things such as dust mites, cats, dogs, or cockroaches," says Dr. Stukus, "and they may not get relief at any point in the year."
So then how did we start to equate all seasonal allergies with spring? "That can be a severe season for many — especially people who experience relief in the winter when they're not exposed to their allergens and then all of a sudden are hit with very high exposure to tree pollen," says Dr. Stukus. "But I have just as many patients who are absolutely miserable when school goes back into session, from ragweed."
And just because you're a ragweed person who feels awful in the fall doesn't mean you won't also be allergic to those early-spring trees. "People can have mixtures of seasons or all seasons," says Dr. Stukus. That means that your "seasonal" allergies may actually bother you throughout the year.
Though some folks swear their allergies got better when they moved to a different area, don't think uprooting your life will save you: There's sort of a "honeymoon period" after you move to a new city during which your allergy symptoms will seem to go away. But after a year or so, they'll be back. Moral of the story? "There is no safe area," says Dr. Stukus.
That's a truly harrowing thought for people with severe allergies. But even mild allergies can disrupt your sleep and your ability to work and live your life. So if you're stuck with this kind of misery, definitely get yourself to a board-certified allergist, says Dr. Stukus: "You really shouldn’t settle for anything less than relief for your symptoms."
Whenever your seasonal allergies strike, the best way to combat them is to learn how to predict when they're heading your way. That way you can start using your trusted allergy meds at least a week or two in advance, which will give you the best chance at a congestion-free spring — or summer, or fall, or winter.
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