As summer fades, it's customary to look forward to certain things on your fall bucket list: cozy sweaters, apple picking, pumpkin spice everything, and no more summer allergies! Except, well, that last one? It’s only partly true, because allergies in the fall can be just as bad, just as annoying, and no, it's not your imagination—allergy season really is lasting longer.
At the moment, according to the Pollen.com map, parts of the southern United States are starting to get hit with fall allergies; by mid-October, it’s likely that the more northern reaches will start feeling them, too. So as you're stocking up on tissues and over-the-counter allergy medications, keep these expert tips in mind.
What Causes Seasonal Allergies?
Seasonal allergies are an umbrella term for certain kinds of ailments; they’re unlikely to cause sufferers problems all year, but exactly when they come into force will vary based on the specific type of allergy and geographic location. In general, though, seasonal allergies have a couple of key causes, namely pollen and mold.
“You have different allergens at different times of the year,” says Cheryl Nelson, a broadcast meteorologist in Norfolk, VA. In spring, pollen tends to come from trees but in summer, it’s the pollen from flowering grasses like rye and bermudagrass that are most difficult for those with allergies.
Starting in late August and moving through October, fall seasonal allergies are largely due to pollen from weeds, including the infamous ragweed. Ragweed is perhaps the worst seasonal allergen in the United States: it’s found essentially nationwide, it can produce up to a billion grains of pollen per plant, and those grains of pollen can be carried for literally hundreds of miles by wind. Ragweed is also considered the leading cause of allergic rhinitis—sometimes known as hay fever—in the United States. “I think a lot of people may not realize the role that wind plays in spreading pollen,” Nelson says. Even if you don’t see any ragweed nearby, that doesn’t mean you’re free of its pollen.
What Are Common Allergy Symptoms?
Many people with an allergy to one kind of pollen will also have allergies to multiple other types, but only an allergy test can tell you that for sure. So regardless of whether you’re allergic to ragweed, rye grass, or birch tree pollen, you'll likely experience the same common allergy symptoms like a runny nose, itchy eyes, and sinus pressure. In some cases, pollen can trigger asthma symptoms; the body’s reaction to an allergen can result in what’s called allergy-induced asthma. And, of course, there are seasonal headaches. Pollen allergies can cause inflammation and pain, but changing temperatures can also be responsible. A temperature change—like much of the country is dealing with right now—can cause a change in barometric pressure, and that can cause headaches. “A change of as little as 0.20 millibars impacts the pressure in the ear canal which can trigger headaches,” says Molly Rossknecht, M.D., a neurologist who specializes in headache medicine and medical advisor to WeatherX.
How to Treat Seasonal Allergies
Generally speaking, treatments for fall allergies are similar to summer or spring allergy treatments, and preventing excess pollen and mold from getting into your lungs is key. Pollen can be let into your house via open windows, or stuck to kids and outdoor pets. You can track it in with shoes, and it likes to get stuck in carpet and window treatments. (Hardwood floors are an allergy sufferer’s best friend because they're easy to keep clean.) Vacuuming can help but may kick up pollen that was sitting in a carpet. An air purifier, as long as it uses a HEPA filter, can be a huge help; you can use our air purifier guide to find the best one for you.
Like pollen, different varieties of mold are more present during different weather conditions, whether that’s hot and dry or cool and damp. Mold, unlike pollen, comes from fungi; to reproduce, certain types of fungi let loose with spores, which are airborne and can be inhaled. Regularly cleaning your home, especially damp spots in bathrooms and basements where mold likes to grow, can also help alleviate allergy symptoms.
The good news is, fall allergy symptoms can usually be managed with over-the-counter products; ibuprofen for headaches, antihistamines for sneezing and runny nose; and decongestants to relieve stuffiness are a few popular options. But if those aren’t working, ask your doctor about allergy shots. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, allergy shots, also known as immunotherapy, can be both cost-effective and long-lasting. Like many vaccines, these shots contain small amounts of the allergen that bothers you, in the hopes that your body will build up resistance fighting a small battle against that dastardly pollen.
Fall allergies can be a headache (literally), but there are simple ways to lessen your symptoms and reduce the amount of pollen and mold in your home. And if those measures aren't enough, talk to your doctor about allergy testing and formulating a more tailored treatment plan. Stay safe out there—or at least, as non-sniffly as possible.