Winter can sometimes seem endless for many parts of the world, can’t it?

The fluctuating temperatures in March and April have us doubting that spring or summer will ever arrive.  And then it happens — the air gets warmer, it rains, the grass gets green, and flowers and trees blossom. Great news, right?

Well…yes and no. Unfortunately, as spring and summer roll around, so does pollen, wreaking nasal havoc on those of us who suffer from seasonal allergic rhinitis, more commonly known as hay fever.  According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI), nasal allergies are estimated to impact approximately 50 million people — and it’s on the rise. Nearly 17 million adults and close to seven million children were diagnosed with hay fever in the last year alone.

As an allergist, I often see patients who are not sure whether or not they have allergies, as well as those who have chosen to simply “live with” the seasonal sniffling as it eventually goes away — at least temporarily — without treatment. But the fact is, allergies can be physically draining and greatly reduce your ability to fully enjoy activities that keep life rewarding.

Understanding allergies, their causes and symptoms is your first step to controlling them.

What are allergies?

At its most basic level, an allergic reaction is your body’s way of fighting off a perceived threat to it. When your body is sensitive, or allergic, to certain substances, your immune system overreacts to those substances and releases what are called histamines, to fight off the substances. For example, if you are allergic to ragweed or pollen, or perhaps cat dander, your body releases histamines that may cause you to sneeze, cough or wheeze, or your eyes to itch.  In more serious instances of insect or food allergies, for example, the body can react with hives, itching, or more severe symptoms such as anaphylaxis – a life-threatening reaction that can inhibit your breathing, cause a sudden drop in blood pressure and even send your body into shock. Allergies can manifest themselves at any stage in life.

What are the types of allergies and what are their symptoms? 

There are many different kinds of allergies, all affecting people in different ways. Some of the more common ones include:

Hay fever — Grass, pollen (ragweed) and mold are among the most common seasonal triggers that cause your nasal passages to swell and become inflamed, and bring on sneezing, coughing, watery eyes.

Food allergies —  While virtually any food can cause an allergic reaction, 90 percent of all reactions come from eggs, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat and soy. Symptoms range from hives and rashes to vomiting, wheezing and facial swelling, and in severe cases, anaphylaxis.

Pet allergies — The most common pet allergies are related to dogs or cats, when exposure to their dander can cause sneezing, itchy, watery eyes, coughing, and other respiratory symptoms. Some people also develop itchy skin or hives.

Drug allergies — Allergic reactions to drugs can occur in any part of your body and with both oral and injected drugs. Common drugs to which people are allergic include penicillin and related antibiotics, sulfa drugs, and even aspirin, ibuprofen and other anti-inflammatory drugs.  Symptoms can range from mild skin rashes or itching to serous reactions such as anaphylaxis.

Insect allergies – According to the ACAAI, the stings of five insects – honeybees, hornets, wasps, yellow jackets and fire ants – are known to cause allergic reactions. The severity of an insect sting reaction varies from person to person and from one sting to the next. You may not experience an allergic reaction until you have been stung several times.

Dust allergies — Dust can cause some people to experience difficulty breathing, as well as wheezing, coughing, sneezing or itchy skin.

Chemical allergies — The cleaners we use in our homes, our laundry detergents, cosmetics, soaps, even tissues all have chemicals which can cause our bodies to experience allergic skin reactions — rashes, itchiness, hives, blisters etc.

How do I know if I have allergies?

If you suspect that you may be experiencing an allergic reaction to something, your first stop is your primary care physician, or the pediatrician for your children. Your doctor may try over-the-counter drugs (antihistamines) in cases of mild nasal allergies, but he or she may also refer you to a board-certified allergist-immunologist, a professional with specialized training who can both diagnose and treat allergies.

An allergist will start by obtaining a thorough medical history.  This helps him or her know if allergies run in your family, what you may be exposed to, and other factors that can contribute to your symptoms.  The doctor will also conduct a physical exam and gain detailed information about your symptoms.  To get to the most definitive diagnosis of your potential allergies and what causes you to have an allergic reaction, the doctor will likely perform skin tests — injecting a miniscule amount of the suspected allergen under your skin to gauge the reaction — or allergy blood tests.

How are allergies treated?

Allergy treatments generally fall under two categories, allergy medication and immunotherapy. Your allergist will select the most appropriate treatment based on your symptoms, the results of allergy testing and other factors.

Allergy medication — Decongestants and antihistamines are the most common allergy medications which can reduce symptoms such as a stuffy or runny nose, sneezing and itching. Other medications work by inhibiting the chemicals or substances that cause allergic reactions.

Immunotherapy — Sometimes referred to as “allergy shots,” immunotherapy treatment involves giving gradually increasing doses of the substance to which you are allergic. Over time, this causes your immune system to become less sensitive to the substance. Immunotherapy is not a cure, but over time, can minimize the symptoms.

Allergies are not something any of us wish to have, but understanding your allergy symptoms and their causes, and receiving appropriate treatment can help ensure they don’t limit your activities or your enjoyment of life.

Dr. Bruce Pfuetze is a member of HCA’s Physician Services Group (PSG). He is board-certified allergy and immunology specialist at College Park Family Care Center, an affiliate of Overland Park Regional Medical Center, part of HCA Midwest Health.