Pollen grains from trees, grasses and weeds can float through the air in spring, summer or fall. But on their way to fertilize plants and tree flowers, pollen particles often end up in our noses, eyes, ears and mouths. The result can be sneezing spells, watery eyes, congestion and an itchy throat.
The collection of symptoms that affect the nose when you breathe in something you are allergic to is called allergic rhinitis; when the symptoms affect the eyes, it's called allergic conjunctivitis. Allergic rhinitis caused by plant pollen is commonly called hay fever—although it's not a reaction to hay and it doesn't cause fever.
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Pollen allergy affects about 1 out of 10 Americans, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). For some, symptoms can be controlled by using over-the-counter (OTC) medicine occasionally. Others have reactions that may more seriously disrupt the quality of their lives. Allergies can trigger or worsen asthma and lead to other health problems such as sinus infection (sinusitis) and ear infections in children.
"You can distinguish allergy symptoms from a cold because a cold tends to be short-lived, results in thicker nasal secretions, and is usually associated with sore throat, hoarseness, malaise, and fever," says Badrul Chowdhury, M.D., Ph.D., an allergist and immunologist in the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Many people with allergic rhinitis notice a seasonal pattern with their symptoms, but others may need a health care professional's help to find out for sure if pollen is the source of their misery. If symptoms crop up year-round, dust mites, pet dander or another indoor allergy trigger (allergen) could be the culprit. This year-round condition is known as perennial allergic rhinitis.
When to Get Treatment
Chowdhury suggests seeing a health care professional if you experience allergies for the first time, your symptoms interfere with your ability to function, you don't find relief from OTC drugs, or you experience allergy symptoms over a long period.
You may need an allergy test, the most common of which is a skin test that shows how you react to different allergens, including specific pollen allergens like ragweed and grass pollen.