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Every year we patiently endure the last of the winter months, looking forward to most of the first harbingers of spring: warm temperatures, budding flowers, cheerful birdsong. But there are others–itchy eyes, runny nose, non-stop sneezing–that are less welcome. These symptoms affect at least 20 percent of Canadians every year, says Dr. Jean-Nicolas Boursiquot, a Quebec City-based allergist and associate clinical professor at Laval University. And, he adds, seasonal allergies tend to be underdiagnosed. “This type of allergy can affect your quality of life and even cause other problems, like disrupted sleep due to nasal congestion, but there are effective ways to get relief,” he says. We sat down with Dr. Boursiquot to better understand seasonal allergies, how to tackle the most common symptoms and what you can do when you’ve tried everything but are still suffering.
When does allergy season start?
Seasonal allergies fall into three categories: spring allergies, which can begin as early as March and last until June; summer allergies, which arrive in July and August, and fall allergies which can last into November.
Is it true that flowers cause most seasonal allergies?
Although many people tend to sneeze around flowers, it’s a myth that they cause allergies. The particles from flower pollen may irritate the nasal passage, causing sneezing, but they’re too large to actually get deep into the respiratory tract to trigger an allergic response.
So what are we most allergic to during allergy season?
In the spring, tree pollen, especially from birches and maples, is the biggest cause of seasonal allergic rhinitis (A.K.A. “hay fever”). Global warming caused by climate change is making the pollen season worse for allergy sufferers as warm temperatures help pollen disseminate in the air. Once leaves replace the buds on trees, pollen is no longer a problem, but those with seasonal allergies may find themselves allergic to grasses in the summer and weeds, especially ragweed, in the fall.
How do you know if you have seasonal allergies or if your sneezing and runny nose is caused by a cold?
The common cold usually lasts for only three to four days while seasonal allergies last longer, sometimes weeks at a time. Colds are also often accompanied by a fever and the nasal discharge tends to be green or yellow while allergies produce clear secretions.
What can you do to reduce allergy symptoms caused by pollen?
We don’t recommend that people stay indoors to avoid pollen in the air. If you have a runny nose, a sinus rinse can help clear the pollen that accumulates in the nasal tract. About two-thirds of patients with seasonal allergies also experience red, watery eyes, in which case eye drops can help hydrate the eyes, clear the pollen and relieve itching. However, if you’ve tried to find relief on your own but are still suffering from symptoms, it’s better to talk to your doctor about how to best treat them so you can enjoy the outdoors.
What should patients do if they’ve tried over-the-counter medications, but still haven’t found relief for their allergy symptoms?
Patients may do just fine with oral antihistamines and environment control, such as leaving windows closed and using air conditioning when pollen counts are high. But if that’s not working, they should ask their doctors about what treatments might work best for them as every patient is different and experiences different symptoms. There are newer, fast-acting medications that offer quick relief from runny nose and itchy eyes–the two most common symptoms of seasonal allergic rhinitis.
What questions should allergy sufferers ask when speaking to their doctor about their symptoms?
First, patients should share their symptoms with their doctor to see if they are compatible with seasonal allergies as opposed to a medical condition that may look like allergies, such as chronic sinusitis. Then, the patient should ask about creating an “action plan” and what medication is most likely to work best for them. There are many treatment options like oral medications, nasal sprays or allergen immunotherapy depending on each individual patient.
When it comes to treating allergic rhinitis, are there benefits to topical (nasal) versus oral (pill) treatments?
Nasal corticosteroids or combination nasal sprays (corticosteroid and antihistamine spray) are effective at treating allergic rhinitis–as they specifically target the nose as opposed to more general antihistamine pills. For my patients, I often recommend using their nasal spray at least two weeks before the time their allergic symptoms tend to start and then continue the medication on a daily basis until the usual end of their allergic period.
Can you outgrow seasonal allergies?
I’ve heard patients say that allergy cycles usually only last for seven years, or that allergies are just for kids and that you can outgrow them–not true. You can develop seasonal allergies at any time in your life, whether you’re a kid or an adult in your 60s, and there is no such thing as a “cycle” after which they just disappear. This is why it’s best to speak to your doctor and determine an appropriate plan of action because not every allergy sufferer is alike.
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