With its shifting temperatures, fall often brings sniffles, sneezes, sore throats and coughs. But what you think is a cold or sinusitis may actually be allergies.
Many people think allergies are a problem only in the spring and summer. But for some of the 36 million allergy sufferers nationwide, the time between late summer and the first hard frost is the “sneezing season.”
The main fall allergens are mold and ragweed, said Twin Lakes ENT Associates nurse practitioner Rowgena Cain, ARNP.
“Many people spend the fall suffering with symptoms like sneezing, nasal congestion, sinus pressure, postnasal drip, runny nose, and itchy, watery eyes,” Cain said. “They might experience these symptoms year-round, but many have symptoms that worsen during the spring and fall.”
Allergic rhinitis, often called hay fever, is caused by breathing in particles like pollens. Each ragweed plant can produce about a billion grains of a light, airy pollen which can be carried far by the wind. Researchers have determined that one square mile of ragweed plants can create an estimated 16 tons of pollen.
“When you’re allergic to ragweed and other plants, it means that your body’s immune system reacts to these harmless pollens as if they were harmful to the body,” said Cain, who works with local ear, nose and throat specialists Dr. Robert Knox and Dr. Anil Arora.
When the pollen is inhaled by someone who suffers from a ragweed allergy, it triggers the release of histamine, which causes inflammation in the nose, throat and eyes. Those with severe allergies also experience asthma attacks, chronic sinusitis, headaches, throat irritation and impaired sleep.
While ragweed levels are low now, they are expected to rise Sunday before falling again with Monday’s expected rains.
While there are no cures for allergies, there are ways to lessen the symptoms: avoiding the allergen, environmental controls, medication and immunotherapy, or shots.
The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America suggests avoidance as the best way to minimize pollen-related problems. Other tips include closing all windows and use a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter, changing clothes after coming in contact with ragweed or even being outdoors on a windy day, and washing your hands often and avoiding touching your mouth or eyes.
Allergy sufferers can also use eye drops to help prevent pollens from sticking to the cornea and causing irritation, and showering before bed to help cut down on pollen-related symptom flares. Indoors, frequent dusting can help as well.
Recent rainfall, while needed to help ease the area’s drought, can also be triggering allergy problems in people sensative to mold.
“Fall is a big time for respiratory illness for two main reasons,” said Dr. Michael Gutman, medical director of New England Urgent Care. “For one, the kids are back to school and adults back to the office, so communicable diseases are being passed around more easily. Secondly, the change in weather does have an impact, in particular when you’re dealing with allergies.”
Many schools and offices are in older buildings and so mold spores and dust mites are more likely.
Seasonal allergies will typically first surface between ages 6 and 8. The severity of the allergic reactions such as ragweed may peak when people are in their 20s to 30s, and then may get worse again as folks are in their 70s and older. Also, the severity of the reaction can vary greatly from year to year.
“This is a result of the body’s maturation and also is very reliant on weather. If the ragweed season, for instance, is worse that year due to dry and breezy weather in the fall, than the allergy severity will be worse,” said Gutman.
And there’s often confusion regarding fall allergies versus a cold because their symptoms mimic each other. The symptoms of a cold are often characterized by runny nose, sore throat and cough. A distinguishing factor might be that in some upper respiratory infections, the patient will also have a fever and muscle aches.
One way to determine if your problems are allergy related is symptom reoccurrance, Cain said. Colds generally last seven to 10 days. If someone repeatedly has boughts of cold-like symptoms and doesn’t really ever seem to recover, he or she might have allergies.
Cain said patients with more severe symptoms can often benefit from allergy shots.
Patients can undergo allergy testing to identify what they are allergic to and the level of sensitivity they have to the specific allergen or allergens.
“From the test results, we can make allergy serum to use for allergy injections,” she said. “A patient will then be given injections to help decrease the immune system response to the allergens.”
Through the shots the immune system becomes less sensitive to the allergen, which can lead to a decrease in allergy symptoms over time. Cain adds, “This process can be used for a variety of allergens other than just pollen, including mold, dust, animal dander and some foods which cause allergic reactions in some people.”