Almost one in five Americans suffers from seasonal allergic rhinitis, also known as hay fever. This malady occurs when a person’s immune system overreacts to an outdoor allergen such as pollen. Seasonal allergies are less common during the winter, but as various plants emit their respective pollens at different times of the year, symptoms of hay fever may affect a person all year through, depending on his or her immune system and where he or she lives.

Usually the immune system doesn’t respond to mild substances such as pollen and mold, but in sensitive people, the body’s defense mechanism views these allergens as infectious agents and mounts an attack. The symptoms of allergic reactions can begin five to 10 minutes after allergen exposure and subside within an hour, but they may return two to four hours later. Because the pollen of insect-pollinated plants are too heavy to remain airborne for long, the main culprits for hay fever are wind-pollinated plants such as grasses, trees and weeds.

Allergy symptoms include coughing, sneezing, itchy eyes and runny nose. Some common triggers of seasonal allergies are pollen, grass and mold. In most areas of the United States, spring allergies begin in February and last until the early summer.

The most common culprit for fall allergies is ragweed, which blooms and releases pollen from August to November. Other plants that trigger fall allergies include cocklebur, burning bush, pigweed, lamb’s-quarters, sagebrush, mugwort, tumbleweed and Russian thistle.

While seasonal allergies generally refer to pollen, grass and mold, a different group of allergy triggers is also tied to particular seasons. They are smoke (fireplaces in winter, campfires in summer); chlorine in indoor and outdoor swimming pools; insect bites and stings (usually in summer and spring); pine trees and wreaths (during Thanksgiving to Christmas); and some candy ingredients (Easter, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Halloween).

You may think you know your triggers or believe pollen is causing your seasonal allergies, but other substances could be involved as well. Be sure to work with your allergist to find ways to avoid your triggers. Many things, including animal dander and house dust, can trigger allergies. When checking on your allergies, your doctor will want to know if you have pets, if anyone smokes in the house, your age when you started getting allergy symptoms and if anyone else in your family suffers from allergies.

Monitor pollen and mold counts and keep the doors and windows shut in your car and at home during the allergy season. Stay inside during the afternoon, when pollen counts are highest. Take a shower, wash your hair and change your clothes after you’ve worked or played outdoors. Wear a NIOSH-rated 95 filter mask while mowing the lawn or doing other outdoor chores and take medications beforehand.
One of the most effective ways to treat seasonal allergies linked to pollen is immunotherapy (allergy shots). These injections expose you to gradual increments of your allergen, so you learn to tolerate it instead of reacting with sneezing, a stuffy nose and itchy, watery eyes.

Over-the-counter allergy medications may ease your discomfort. A nasal decongestant may help relieve a stuffy nose. If you have a prior history of seasonal problems, start medications two weeks before they are expected to begin. Be sure to consult your doctor before you take any medication.