Warmer weather may feel good after a long, cold winter, but spring can be rough on the nose and eyes. That's because hay fever, a seasonal allergy to pollen, kicks in just as the sunnier days arrive. Never been near a bale of hay, you say? You may still have hay fever, caused by the pollen from a variety of trees, grasses, and weeds. The allergy's hallmarks-stuffy nose, watery eyes, and fatigue-are a minor annoyance for some and bring full-blown misery to others.
Hay fever is not the only kind of spring allergy, but it is the most common. As many as 50 million people in the United States have allergies -- and nearly 36 million of them have hay fever, says the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI).
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Don't settle for all that sniffling, sneezing, and teariness. Work with a doctor to find out what's causing your allergies. Hay fever treatments are plentiful, including over-the-counter products, prescription drugs, and allergy shots. With proper care, "most everybody can get through the season without a whole lot of distress," agrees Larry Williams, MD, of the pediatric allergy and immunology division of Duke University Medical Center.
Your first step: Decide to take control. Use this guide to learn more about the kind of seasonal allergy you may have, house hold tips to help keep allergens away, and treatment options in and beyond your medicine cabinet.
The ABCs of Allergens
Allergies are classified by their source (such as food allergies) or the part of the body they affect (such as skin allergies). Some allergies last all year, including those to food, medicines, latex, dust mites, insect stings, and animal dander. Other allergies, like hay fever, are seasonal. That's because from spring through fall, plants reproduce by spreading pollen through the air. In people with hay fever, pollen irritates the immune system, triggering a host of allergy symptoms.
Nasal allergies, including hay fever, can irritate the eyes, nose, roof of the mouth, and throat. Top culprits include:
Animal dander. Dead skin cells from animals.
Dust mites. Microscopic insects that live in household dust, even in tidy homes. "Dust mites have to have conditions of warmth and humidity" to thrive, says Williams.
Mold spores from fungi. Spores that thrive indoors in damp areas, such as basements and bathrooms. They also gather outside in warm climates and in leaf piles.
Pollen. A fine, powdery substance released by trees and plants, including ragweed, grasses, and, of course, hay. Flowering plants, such as roses, usually don't cause allergy symptoms. Their pollen is too large to be carried by wind.
False irritants. Tobacco smoke and perfumes can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat, but they're not allergens.