If you have an allergy, welcome to the club. About 50 million Americans -- or more than 1 in 6 people -- are allergic to pollen, food, pets, medications, and more. Learn about your allergy, including how to recognize symptoms, avoid allergy triggers, and most importantly, how to find relief.
What causes allergies?
Blame your allergies on something called allergens. When people with allergies come in contact with an allergen, like pet dander, pollen, mold, or dust, their immune system reacts. It thinks that allergen is harmful and responds by creating inflammation in your skin, sinuses, airways, or digestive system. That triggers symptoms like itching, sneezing, wheezing, and watery eyes.
Who’s most at risk for developing allergies?
Allergies affect men and women of all ages, and you can develop an allergy at any time. You may even find yourself suddenly allergic to something that never bothered you before. Experts aren’t sure why some people have allergies and others don’t, but there seems to be a family connection. People with a family history of allergies are more likely to develop them. So if you have allergies, your children will most likely have them, too.
How do I know if I have allergies?
If you always sneeze when you pet a cat or feel sniffly at the start of spring, you could have an allergy. But how do you know for sure? The best way to find out is to see your doctor or an allergist. They will ask about your medical history, do a physical exam, and run tests.
You can help your doctor give you the right diagnosis:
- Make a list of your symptoms. Based on these, your doctor may be able to rule out other causes like a cold, virus, or other illness.
- Track the timing. If you’re sneezing for a few weeks every few months, or if your symptoms are particularly bad in the morning, this may be another clue that you have allergies. Do symptoms happen around certain animals?
- Note anything new. Are you using a new detergent? Did you change your skin care routine? Pay attention to any changes in your diet and lifestyle. They may help your doctor find what’s triggering your symptoms.
The most common test for respiratory, penicillin, insect sting, skin, and food allergies is a skin prick or scratch test. The doctor scratches a small amount of the allergen into your skin and watches for swelling, itchiness, and redness in that area. Other tests look for signs in the blood that are linked to allergies.
How do I know if I have a cold or allergies?
The symptoms are so similar that you might get them confused. Here’s how to tell the difference:
Runny, itchy, or stuffy nose, sneezing, wheezing, watery or itchy eyes. Itchy skin or hives.
|Runny or stuffy nose, sneezing. You could also have a sore throat, body aches, and fever. Watery eyes are rare.|
|When symptoms start||Begin shortly after being exposed to an allergen.||Usually develop over several days.|
|How long symptoms last||Could last a long time, as long as you’re exposed to your allergen.|
Symptoms tend to clear up within a few days.
What is hay fever?
Also known as allergic rhinitis, hay fever is the most common type of allergy. It can be seasonal, meaning it only happens at certain times of the year (mostly in the spring or fall), or year-round. Symptoms include stuffy nose, runny nose, sneezing, watery eyes, and itchy throat and can range from mild to severe.
- Seasonal: If you have seasonal hay fever, you are probably allergic to something outdoors, like mold or pollen. Ragweed is to blame for 75% of hay fever. Where you live can play a factor in how and when you react. Mold, for example, reaches its peak in July in warm states and October in cold states, but it can be found year-round in the South and on the West Coast.
- Year-round: If you have year-round hay fever, you are probably allergic to something indoors, such as dust mites, mold, cockroaches, or pet dander.
What can I do to reduce allergens in my home?
- Take care when cleaning. Vacuuming and dusting can stir up dust, which can trigger an allergic reaction. To avoid this, wear a mask when cleaning. If possible, leave your home for a few hours after cleaning to avoid allergens you’ve stirred up. Also, make sure that your vacuum has a HEPA filter or special double filter bags to catch dust.
- Cut down on dander. Keep pets out of the bedroom. Vacuum carpets frequently, and replace carpet with hardwood, tile, or linoleum.
- Keep dust mites at bay. These little critters thrive in bedding, carpeting, and upholstered furniture. Use allergen-proof covers on mattresses, box springs, and pillows. Zippered plastic covers also work. Wash bedding weekly in hot water (130 F) and dry in a hot dryer to kill dust mites. Keep humidity levels low in your house by using air conditioning or a dehumidifier. Replace wall-to-wall carpeting with flooring.
- Get a grip on mold. Get rid of mold in your house by using water and detergent. In some cases, you can use a 5% bleach solution, but don’t mix it with other cleaners. Repair indoor or outdoor leaks. Use a dehumidifier, and clean it often.
- Keep pollen out. Use an air filter in your house to eliminate pollen from the air and clean your home regularly. Use the air conditioner and change the filter often. Also, keep windows and doors in your home closed.
What can I do to protect myself from outdoor allergens?
You don’t have to stay indoors round the clock, there are some precautions you can take:
- Avoid going out when allergens are at their peak, usually between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
- Check the allergy forecast (download an allergy forecast app or visit a weather website that tracks allergens) and stay indoors when pollen and mold counts are high or the wind is gusting, which could kick up dust and pollen.
- Consider wearing a facemask when you’re outside to limit how much pollen you breathe in.
- Wear a baseball cap during pollen season and leave it at the door when you come back inside.
- Avoid tracking pollen in your home by leaving your shoes at the door, changing your clothes, and showering and washing your hair immediately after going inside. Pets can bring in pollen, too. So keep your cat or dog out of the bedroom.
- Wear sunglasses to protect your eyes from pollen.
- Roll up the car windows and use the air conditioner when you drive.
- Have someone else do the yard work.
What does treatment for allergies involve?
There’s no cure for allergies, but there are many treatments available. You can avoid your allergens as much as possible, take medications, use alternative treatments, and try immunotherapy, also called allergy shots.
What medications can help my symptoms?
There are many medications that can help control your allergy symptoms. Some are available over the counter, while others need a prescription. Work with your doctor or pharmacist to find out which medication is best for you.
Here are some of the most common:
Steroid Nasal Sprays
This medication is usually a doctor’s first choice for allergy treatment. These sprays reduce swelling in the nasal passages and prevent and treat runny, stuffy noses, sneezing, and itching.
While steroids are effective for allergies, they must be taken regularly, often daily, even when you aren't feeling allergy symptoms.
Side effects may include bloody nose and nasal irritation.
When you come in contact with allergens, your body releases histamines, which bring on sneezing, itching, a runny nose, and watery eyes. Antihistamines block this response.
One of the most common medicines used for allergies, antihistamines are available over the counter and by prescription. They come in different forms, including liquids, pills, and nasal sprays. They help relieve rashes, hives, sneezing, itching, and runny nose. Some may make you sleepy, so don't take them if you need to drive. Check with your pharmacist for advice on non-drowsy antihistamines and ones that work for longer periods of time.
Another popular way to treat allergies is with a decongestant. These reduce swelling and can help with stuffiness. They come in nasal sprays, eyedrops, liquids, and pills and are available over the counter and with a prescription.
The only over-the-counter decongestants in pill form are phenylephrine and pseudoephedrine. Though it doesn’t require a prescription, pseudoephedrine is stocked behind the pharmacy counter. You will have to ask your pharmacist for it.
Nasal spray and eyedrop decongestants should be used for only a few days at a time. Using them for longer can make your symptoms come back worse.
You shouldn’t take decongestants if you have blood pressure or heart problems, thyroid disease, diabetes, or prostate problems unless your doctor says you can.
Most people don’t have side effects. Rarely, you may have headaches, trouble sleeping, and feel irritable when you take them.
This is also called allergy immunotherapy and is only available from your doctor. The shots can help your body get used to your allergens. It can’t cure your allergies, but your symptoms can get better for a long time, and you may have fewer allergic reactions. Allergy shots have to be taken every few days to weeks for several months. They are a good option for people with hay fever or pet allergies when other medications haven’t worked.
Side effects include redness, swelling, or irritation around the site of the injection.
These are like allergy shots without the injections. Instead, a small dose of your allergen is given as a tablet that you hold under your tongue for a couple of minutes before swallowing it. It helps boost your tolerance for an allergen and improves your symptoms. This is a newer therapy, so not all allergens are covered.
Your doctor will prescribe the tablets. At first, you’ll take them in the office, but eventually you can take them at home.
Side effects tend to be mild and include itching in the mouth and stomach problems.
You’ll need to keep an epinephrine auto-injector handy in case you have a severe reaction. Auto-injectors are syringes loaded with medication that can help stop a severe allergic reaction and are small enough to carry with you at all times.
Can I use these treatments together?
Some of these treatments can be used together. Antihistamines and steroid nasal sprays, for example, are often taken together. Always read medication labels and check with your doctor or pharmacist before you combine them. Some medications can interact with others and make side effects worse.
How can I reduce side effects from medication?
Follow a few simple strategies to manage side effects:
- Follow the directions. Read medication labels and instructions carefully to know when, how much, and how often to take your medication, and whether it should be taken with food.
- List all your meds. Tell your doctor or pharmacist about all of the medications you’re taking, including supplements and over-the-counter drugs.
- Mention past problems. Tell your doctor if you’ve had any problems or unpleasant side effects from past medications. That will help your doctor decide which medications you should -- and shouldn’t -- take.
- Limit alcohol. If you’re taking antihistamines, don't drink alcohol. It can increase side effects like drowsiness or even make you sick.
What are some ways I can treat my allergies without medicine?
You might have heard that there are ways to get relief from your allergy symptoms without taking medication. Here are some that may work for your allergies:
Acupuncture: With this technique, tiny needles are inserted into your skin, which may help people with mild hay fever by quieting the parts of the immune system that trigger allergic reactions.
Herbal supplements: Experts aren’t sure that taking supplements like bee pollen, butterbur, or goldenseal can help allergies. If you decide to try them, use caution. Some of the plants used to make supplements are distant cousins to ragweed. So if you are allergic to ragweed, some supplements may make your symptoms worse. It’s best to talk to your doctor before taking supplements.
Nasal irrigation: Pour a saline solution into one nostril and let it flow out the other to wash out mucus and allergens. All you need is a bulb syringe or neti pot and the saline solution. Make sure you always use distilled or sterile water, boiled and cooled tap water, or water passed through a special filter.
Bioelectronic sinus device: This device works by using microcurrents that stimulate nerve fibers to help reduce sinus inflammation, pain, and congestion. It is sold over-the counter.
What’s the best way to treat my child’s allergy symptoms?
Children’s allergies are often confused with other conditions like ear, nose, and throat infections. If you don’t know what’s causing your child to sneeze or wheeze, see your pediatrician or allergist. They will examine your child to find the cause of the symptoms and suggest treatments.
When pollen counts are highest, consider limiting your child’s time outdoors. In late summer and early fall, that’s usually in the morning. In spring and summer, evenings are particularly bad. Have your child wear a baseball cap outside, and when they come in, have them change their clothes and wash their face (including eyebrows and nostrils). They should be bathing and washing their hair every day during high pollen seasons. And follow the same advice for adults for protecting your home from indoor and outdoor allergens.
Medications can also help. But remember that treating children is different from treating adults. If your child’s symptoms aren’t responding to over-the-counter medicine recommended by your pharmacist, make an appointment with your pediatrician to see if other treatments like prescription medications and allergy immunotherapy might help.
Can I use adult allergy medicine for my child?
It depends on their age. Only give medication to your child that is clearly labeled for their age group.
There are a few over-the-counter and prescription medications that are OK for children as young as 6 months old. You’ll need to know the child’s age and weight to calculate the correct dose to give.
Your pediatrician or pharmacist can help you figure out which medications and how much, if any, are best for your child.
What are some other types of allergies?
Drug allergies. People with allergies to certain medications (like antibiotics, aspirin, and ibuprofen) will have a reaction like a skin rash, itching, wheezing, swelling, even trouble breathing after taking them. Antihistamines may be able to control some symptoms, but you may also need an epinephrine auto-injector. Avoiding the medication is crucial.
Contact dermatitis. When your skin comes in direct contact with something you’re allergic to, like perfumes, dyes, metals, or latex, you may notice a rash, blisters, itching, and burning. It’s important to identify your allergen so you can avoid it.
Medicated lotions and creams such as calamine lotion and cortisone cream can help with rashes and are available over the counter. Antihistamines can help with itching.
Eczema. Eczema is a chronic inflammation of the skin, resulting in itchy red patches. It can be seen in people with allergies (hay fever) and asthma, in which case it is called atopic dermatitis. It can be triggered by certain foods, pet dander, dust mites, sweating, or coming in contact with something irritating, like wool. Besides avoiding your allergens, the key is moisturizing your skin and not scratching the rash. Creams, lotions, and ointments, including some with steroids and other medications, can help treat and prevent flare-ups.
Insect allergies. Stinging insects like bees, hornets, wasps, yellow jackets, and fire and harvest ants can cause a variety of allergic reactions, including pain, itching, and swelling around the bite or sting. Mosquito bites can also cause a mild reaction with a small itchy welt.
Treat stings and bites with ice or a cool washcloth to stop swelling. Calamine lotion or baking soda mixed with water can help relieve the pain. Use a spray or cream containing hydrocortisone or antihistamine for itching.
In some people, stings can lead to a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis, which should be treated immediately with an epinephrine auto-injector and then by calling 911. Allergy shots may be helpful for people with insect allergies.
Food allergies. Eight foods cause 90% of food allergies: Milk, soy, eggs, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish. Reactions tend to happen more in young children than adults. Fortunately, some children will outgrow them. Symptoms usually appear within a few minutes to 2 hours of eating the food and can be mild, like a rash, itching, or swelling, or life-threatening, like trouble breathing and swelling of the throat or tongue.
Life-threatening reactions should be treated immediately with an epinephrine auto-injector. Then call 911. Do not hesitate to use the auto-injector even if you aren’t sure your symptoms are related to an allergy.