Seasonal allergies aren't life-threatening, but they do make 50 million people in the U.S. miserable. And fall is no exception for hay fever. Dani Dumitriu can tell you all about it.
Autumn’s arrival used to be a time of relief for her. The heat and humidity would fall off -- and so would her summer allergies. September meant that she could finally breathe easily, get outside, eat lunch in the park, and hike the trails around her home.
Then 2 years ago, Dumitriu noticed a change. As August came to a close and she ventured outdoors, her eyes would start to itch and her nose would run. She was tired all day, no matter how much sleep she got. “I suddenly had to restrict myself,” she says. “Part of me was really sad that I couldn’t enjoy the fall.”
Dumitriu’s frustration drove her to see an allergist, who confirmed that she had developed an allergic reaction to ragweed. Even though she, like most people, had always associated spring and summer with allergy season, she soon discovered that autumn has a cornucopia of its own pollens, plants, and seasonal food allergens.
Ragweed Rules Autumn
Dumitriu’s reaction to ragweed is probably the most common fall allergy. Ragweed begins to pollenate in mid-August and lasts until the first hard freeze. Each plant can produce and release up to a billion grains of pollen into the air. This can cause a hay fever with symptoms like:
- Runny nose
- Itchy throat
- Itchy or swollen eyes
Allergist Beth Corn, MD, says there are little everyday things you can do to combat ragweed and other airborne triggers. For instance, close the windows and use your air conditioning. If you need to work out or do some other outdoor activity, do it early in the morning or late in the evening when pollen counts aren’t as high. Then shower and change clothes after you come inside.
Over-the-counter medications also help, like nasal steroid sprays and antihistamine pills or eyedrops. But if symptoms are severe, you might try following Dumitriu’s lead and seeing an allergist. “Even with these meds, some patients might not improve,” Corn says. “Those patients are excellent candidates for allergy shots.”
The Not-So-Great Outdoors
Other autumn plants also cause hay fever, like cocklebur, tumbleweed, and pigweed. But more than individual plants, Corn says people with fall allergies should be careful in places where pollen can settle -- which is pretty much anywhere outside. Be especially wary of traditional outdoor fall activities like hayrides and corn mazes.
Piles of fallen leaves can also cause problems. Whether you’re the one raking them together or the one taking a running leap into the heap, you’re stirring pollen and mold into the air. One way to protect yourself while raking the yard, mowing grass, or working in the garden is to wear a dust mask.
Also, Corn says that if you know you’re going to be outside, make sure you bring your medications. “Know what your symptoms are so you can be proactive.”
Another autumn activity that Dumitriu had to cross off her weekend list was going to apple-picking farms. “Apples are a big problem for me,” she says. “When I eat them, my mouth itches and my lips swell. Used to, if I really craved one, I’d just eat it anyway. But now the symptoms are too severe.”
Fall harvest can be a tough time for people with food allergies. Dumitriu says she also has reactions to pears, apricots, and cherries. Corn adds that people who live with ragweed and other pollen allergies often have reactions to bananas, melons, or vegetables like cucumbers and zucchini. This is because the food and pollen share similar proteins. “It’s called oral allergy syndrome,” Corn says. “These people can’t eat those things raw. But if they cook the foods, they usually become tolerable.”
Trick or Treat -- or Trigger
Halloween can also be a scary time. Your costumed kids come home with a mixed bag full of potential food-allergy triggers. Candy with peanuts or tree nuts. Cookies or baked goods made with milk and eggs. But the researchers at Food Allergy Research and Education have some tips to remove the trick and leave the treat:
- Stick to individually wrapped candy to reduce risk of cross-contamination.
- Make “goody bags” of safe treats for your neighbors to hand out to your child.
- Avoid candy that doesn’t have an ingredient label.
- Don’t let your child eat while trick or treating. Give yourself time to read the label.
- Make sure you bring along your child’s epinephrine injector.
- Buy safe treats or toys that you can trade your child for unsafe or questionable candy.
This October, Dumitriu will take her own 11-year-old twins trick or treating. And while she says she won’t restrict what they eat, knowing her own history with allergies, she will be watching carefully for any reactions.
As for her own fall allergies, Dumitriu says her symptoms were so regular and troublesome that she and her allergist decided that allergy shots were the best solution. Once again, she says, autumn means picnics, hikes, and breathing a little easier.