Allergy Causes & Symptoms

Here's What Causes Your Seasonal Allergies

Woman standing in front of a yellow background looking at a vine covered in purple flowers.

Your seasonal allergies are like clockwork. You start to feel miserable—we’re talking nasal congestion, runny nose, and watery eyes—at the same time every year.

And every single time, as you search your closet for an antihistamine and obsessively rub your itchy eyes, you think, “I really need to get ahead of this next year.” But then the next thing you know, your allergy season sneaks up again.

Sound familiar? We thought so. It’s time to nip that cycle in the bud by understanding the causes of seasonal allergies. Because when you know what’s behind your allergy symptoms, you can prepare in advance.

So, what are the underlying causes of seasonal allergies?

You probably understand the basics of your seasonal allergies: A specific season rolls around, and you find yourself stuck dealing with all of the itchy, sneezy side effects.

Let’s talk about what’s really happening from a more scientific perspective. Your seasonal allergies flare up when your immune system reacts to a foreign substance found in the great outdoors. These substances could be pollen, grasses, ragweed, or mold spores, and they’re known as allergens.

When your immune system detects one of these allergens, it kicks the production of a chemical in your body called histamine into overdrive. Your immune system is well-intentioned, but that overproduction of histamine leads to inflammation, which is ultimately what causes an allergic reaction and all of those annoying symptoms you dread.

You might also hear seasonal allergies referred to as hay fever or allergic rhinitis (if you’re feeling extra scientific). They’re different names for the exact same thing: an overproduction of histamine in response to an outdoor allergen.

What are the common triggers for seasonal allergies?

Now that you get the gist of what’s happening in your body, let’s talk about the actual causes of seasonal allergies.

Here’s the important thing to know: Not everybody has the same allergy triggers. That’s why your friend might be sniffling and sneezing in the spring, while you always reach for the tissues in the fall.

There are different allergens that are more prevalent during different seasons. Let’s take a quick look at a few of the most common allergy triggers in each season:

  • Winter: Mold spores
  • Spring: Tree pollen, grass pollen, mold spores
  • Summer: Grass pollen, mold spores
  • Fall: Ragweed pollen, mold spores

Wait...so most of these allergens are pollen? Yep. Without a doubt, pollen is the most common and prevalent seasonal allergy trigger. But, there are these different types of pollen that show up at different times of the year.

What about mold spores? Why do they appear in every single allergy season? Well, mold spores can be prevalent during any point of the year—both inside and outside. They’re often referred to as a year-round (or perennial) trigger, but they can also be grouped in with seasonal allergies.

How do I figure out what I’m actually allergic to? And does it matter?

Most seasonal allergies will benefit from the same treatments, which we’ll cover in the next section. So, if you’re going to need to reach for the same types of medications anyway, does figuring out what you’re allergic to really matter?

Here’s the short answer: yes. Understanding your own triggers is always helpful because the more information you have, the better you can treat your symptoms.

Getting ahead of your allergy season: When it comes to managing your seasonal allergies, being proactive is the name of the game. Knowing your triggers and when they tend to crop up means you can start your treatment plan 2-4 weeks ahead of that season—which makes it that much more effective.

Avoiding and minimizing your triggers: If you know your allergens, you’ll also know what times of year you need to be mindful of your exposure to the great outdoors. For example, if you’re saddled with tons of sniffling in the fall, then you’ll probably keep your windows closed, avoid prolonged outdoor activities, or shower and immediately wash your clothes after coming inside (in addition to starting allergy medications, of course).

When you’re in the loop on your own allergy triggers, you’re more empowered to address and manage them. But how do you actually figure out what you’re allergic to? Here are a few tips to help.

1. Pay attention to timing

When you’re trying to pinpoint your seasonal allergies, one of the biggest clues you should pay attention to is timing. Like we mentioned earlier, different allergens are prevalent at different times of the year. So, if your symptoms appear in summer, you know it’s likely that grass pollen or mold spores are to blame.

2. Consider your genes

Evidence is still evolving, but some research suggests that seasonal allergies can be hereditary. It’s not the only factor or a sure thing, but it can be an important piece of the puzzle. If one of your parents is horribly allergic to ragweed, then the same could be true for you.

3. Get an allergy test

The above factors can help you narrow down your seasonal allergy triggers. However, the only way to know for sure is to get an allergy test.

An allergy skin test is the most common type of test. An allergist or medical professional will expose your skin to suspected allergens—either by dropping a small amount of the allergen directly on your skin or injecting it under the surface. How your skin reacts will determine what you’re allergic to.

There are also blood tests, but they’re generally used for people who can’t complete a skin test due to medications or skin conditions.

The one caveat of these tests is that knowing what you’re allergic to often won’t change your treatment plan. The medications and recommended lifestyle changes tend to be the same.

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How can I get ahead of my seasonal allergies?

Once you’ve figured out the root of your seasonal allergies, you’re bound to have one more question: How can you get ahead of your symptoms and get some much-needed relief?

The best way to keep your suffering at a minimum is to anticipate it. There are a number of treatment options available, including antihistamines, nasal sprays, and even allergy shots. Don’t hesitate to try out a combination of different treatments to figure out what’s best for you.

But, regardless of what one you land on, keep in mind that they do their best work when you take them early—about a month before your typical allergy season begins. If you want to nip your miserable allergy season in the bud (quite literally), you need to be proactive.

ARTICLE REVIEWED BY
Amina H. Abdeldaim, MD MPH
Picnic Medical Director
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