The sun is holding its ground, while snow gently melts away. Brave little flowers peek through where the grass is already exposed. Tree buds are taking shape. Spring is finally here, and now your nose is running and you’re starting to sneeze. Is it one last winter cold, or the start of allergies?
Pollen is the culprit in most cases of what we call “seasonal allergies,” in other words allergies that manifest during a specific season. Pollen is a fine powder that is carried from one plant to another by the wind, bees, birds, insects and animals. This spread of pollen is essential in order for plants to reproduce, but it can also cause a lot of discomfort for people with allergies!
Why are some people allergic to pollen?
The human immune system has one mission: To destroy foreign agents that can make us sick, such as viruses and bacteria.
Sometimes, for reasons we still don’t quite understand, the immune system makes a mistake in its attacks. It mistakenly thinks that it needs to destroy a substance that is actually harmless to the human body. This is what happens when someone is allergic to pollen, animals, foods, medication, etc.
When pollen enters the body (e.g. through the nose or eyes), the immune system launches an attack to get rid of the intruder, which results in the onset of these typical allergy symptoms:
- Itchy nose, mouth or throat
- Runny nose (clear, liquid)
- Sneezing (usually in rapid succession)
- Stuffy nose
Ocular symptoms (red, itchy, runny eyes) also commonly occur in cases of pollen allergy.
The three “seasons” of seasonal allergies
In Quebec, there are three periods of the year that typically cause seasonal allergies:
- Early spring (March and April), when trees and shrubs release their pollen
- Early summer, when grasses and herbaceous plants release pollen
- Late summer and throughout the fall, when ragweed spikes release their pollen seeds into the air
When allergy symptoms occur in early spring, we tend to think we’ve caught a cold, especially when there’s still snow on the ground. Although both conditions can cause nasal congestion, cold-related secretions are usually thick and coloured (yellow or green), as opposed to clear and runny in the case of allergies. Colds do not cause itching, like allergies do. While headaches and a cough are common in colds, they are rare in allergies.
Can we prevent seasonal allergies?
Since there is so much pollen floating around in the air, it is practically impossible to avoid it entirely. However, there are certain measures you can take to significantly reduce your exposure:
- Avoid outdoor activities in the morning and on windy days, because this is when there is the most pollen in the air.
- Conversely, rain makes most airborne pollen fall to the ground, so the best time to do outdoor activities is after it has rained.
- After any outdoor activity, put your clothes in the wash and take a shower, including washing your hair. Hair is a veritable pollen trap!
- During pollen seasons, keep your house and car windows closed, and don’t dry your laundry on the clothesline.
How can you relieve symptoms?
In addition to the preventive measures above, you can take different types of medication to relieve symptoms of seasonal allergies.
Saline solutions are very helpful, because they relieve nasal congestion while also flushing pollen from the nasal passages. In addition, they are suitable for both children and adults. Saline solutions are available in spray form or as nasal irrigation devices. The advantage of the irrigation devices is that they clean more thoroughly. Don’t hesitate to speak to your pharmacist, who can explain how to use them.
Nasal corticosteroid sprays are effective against all seasonal allergy symptoms, including nasal congestion and ocular symptoms. They are recommended when the symptoms are severe enough to disrupt sleep or everyday activities, or when they last for several weeks. Most are available by prescription only, but one is available without a prescription (kept behind the counter, under the control of the pharmacist). It is best to start using the spray a week or two before the start of the problematic pollen season, and to keep using it regularly until the end of the season.
Antihistamines are useful to relieve itching, nasal discharge and sneezing, but have little effect on nasal congestion. They are a good option when the symptoms are occasional and mild. They are available in tablet or syrup form. Some products cause drowsiness. Although there are also eye drops on the market, oral antihistamines are usually effective against ocular symptoms.
Decongestants are only effective against nasal congestion. They are available in tablet form or as nasal sprays. They must not be used for more than 3 to 5 days in a row, because they can cause “rebound” congestion, which is nasal congestion caused by the medication itself.
Should you take an allergy test?
If you have seasonal allergies every spring but aren’t sure of the exact allergen causing them, it would be a good idea to speak to your doctor. Allergy tests can help you identify which substances trigger your symptoms, and this in turn can help you determine which preventive measures and treatment you need.
Moreover, in the case of certain allergens (e.g. plants and domestic animals), it is sometimes possible to undergo desensitization treatments, which lessen the immune system’s reaction to the allergen.
Your pharmacist can help!
If your doctor prescribed a medication for your seasonal allergies in the past, but the prescription is no longer refillable, your pharmacist may be able to help! Pharmacists can now prescribe certain allergy treatments, if your situation meets various criteria. Speak to yours for an evaluation of your particular case. Some fees may apply.
If you have any questions on seasonal allergies, don’t hesitate to speak to your pharmacist!