Environmental allergies, also known as seasonal allergies, hayfever, or allergic rhinitis, are caused when your immune system overreacts to allergen particles in the air that you breathe. There are both indoor and outdoor environmental allergens that can affect you at any age.
Environmental allergens can come from a variety of sources and can be found just about anywhere. The most common environmental triggers for allergies are dust mites, pollens from grasses, trees and weeds, and mold.
Dust mites are one of the most common indoor allergens. They are microscopic bugs that live in the carpet and furniture of your home.
Grasses, trees, and weeds produce pollens that travel through the air and are inhaled. Pollens from trees are typically higher in the Spring, grasses are highest in the Summer and weeds in the Fall.
Mold is tiny fungi that can be found in soil, plants, rotting woods, and damp indoor environments. Mold produces tiny spores that float in the air and are inhaled.
The two types of environmental allergies are seasonal and perennial. Seasonal allergies can occur in the Spring, Summer and Fall and are typically caused by airborne mold spores and pollen from trees grasses and weeds. Perennial allergies occur year-round and are typically caused by a sensitivity to dust mites, dander and mold.
When a person susceptible to environmental allergens inhales them, the body will most commonly react with the following symptoms:
- Stuffy nose
- Runny nose or post nasal drainage
- Itching, usually in the nose, mouth, eyes, or throat
- Red and watery eyes
- Puffy, swollen eyelids
To diagnose an environmental allergy, you can meet with an allergist who will dive into your health history looking for any consistent triggers to determine if your symptoms are allergic or non-allergic. Your allergist may also recommend a skin test or blood test to determine any allergens that may be affecting your system.
Management and Treatment
The first step in managing your environmental allergies is avoidance. If possible, avoid exposure to triggers that activate your symptoms. Some examples of avoidance:
- Stay indoors as much as possible when pollen counts are at their peak, usually during the midmorning and early evening (this may vary according to plant pollen), and when wind is blowing pollens around.
- Avoid using window fans that can draw pollens and molds into the house.
- Wear glasses or sunglasses when outdoors to minimize the amount of pollen getting into your eyes.
- Don’t hang clothing outdoors to dry; pollen may cling to towels and sheets.
- Try not to rub your eyes; doing so will irritate them and could make your symptoms worse.
- Keep windows closed and use air conditioning in your car and home. Make sure to keep your air conditioning unit clean.
- Reduce exposure to dust mites, especially in the bedroom. Use “mite-proof” covers for pillows, comforters and duvets, and mattresses and box springs. Wash your bedding frequently, using hot water (at least 130 degrees Fahrenheit).
- To limit exposure to mold, keep the humidity in your home low (between 30 and 50 percent) and clean your bathrooms, kitchen, and basement regularly. Use a dehumidifier, especially in the basement and in other damp, humid places, and empty and clean it often. If mold is visible, clean it with mild detergent and a 5 percent bleach solution as directed by an allergist.
- Clean floors with a damp rag or mop, rather than dry-dusting or sweeping.
If your symptoms cannot be well-controlled by simply avoiding triggers, your allergist may recommend medications that reduce your symptoms. They are available in many forms – oral tablets, liquid medication, nasal sprays and eyedrops. They may also recommend allergy shots to help your system become more resistant to a specific allergen.