The Medical Minute: Ragweed, spores and bugs breed fall allergies

If you find yourself sneezing and rubbing your eyes as you air out your home, turn on the heat for the first time, or head outside to rake leaves, you're not alone.

Although many think of seasonal allergies as something that surges each spring, summer and fall also bring their share of allergens to the air. The budding of trees causes most of the springtime suffering, pollinating grass can stir up trouble in summer, and in fall, ragweed and mold spores can bring on bouts of misery.

In addition to ragweed, mold spores and dust mites, the stink bugs that have infiltrated the area in recent years can also bring on allergies for some people.

“As the temperatures drop, they tend to come indoors,” says Dr. Faoud Ishmael, an allergy and immunology physician at Penn State Hershey Medical Center. “If they get inside, their feces and the particles they leave behind can get into the dust and air and be inhaled, especially when you're cleaning the house.”

Classic allergy symptoms include runny nose, sneezing, congestion, post-nasal drip, sore throat, cough and red, itchy and watery eyes. The tricky thing in the fall is that many of these symptoms can also be indicators of a virus or infection.

Ishmael says a fever that comes alongside typical allergy symptoms – or symptoms that abate after a few days – can often mean it was a virus, not allergies. More chronic symptoms with an unproductive cough that persists for more than a few days are more often a sign of allergies.

Although some people are genetically more prone to develop allergies than others, there are steps anyone who experiences allergy symptoms can take to prevent feeling crummy as the cool weather sets in:

  • Limit your exposure. Don't open windows to air out the house. Wear a mask when raking leaves or doing yard work.
  • Put your clothing in the laundry and take a shower – or at the very least, wash your hands and face – when you come inside after spending time outdoors.
  • Change or clean the filters in your home heating system before you turn it on for the first time.

When such efforts fail and allergy symptoms take hold, over-the-counter remedies such as Benadryl or non-prescription versions of Claritin, Allegra or Zyrtec can provide relief. Some people find it helpful to use a sinus rinse or Neti pot to rinse allergens out of the nose.

If those strategies don't work, Ishmael recommends visiting your doctor for stronger prescription medications or a referral to an allergist who can do skin or blood testing to determine exactly which allergens provoke your symptoms. For the most serious cases, and those where specific allergens have been identified, a specialist may recommend regular allergy shots.

For those who suffer each autumn, relief usually comes with the first frost and colder temperatures, which kill lingering allergens.

The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature brought to you by Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Articles feature the expertise of Penn State Hershey faculty physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.

November 5, 2014 Penn State Health News

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