Updated 15 July 2014

First aid for seasonal allergies

The phrase ‘seasonal allergy’ has become a bit of a misnomer as changes in the weather can cause some of us to suffer all-year round. We take a look at causes and cures.

What is a seasonal allergy?

Seasonal allergies are caused by the pollens of grass, trees and some weed species, all of which are wind-pollinated. In South Africa our ‘grass season’ is very long, resulting in our ‘allergy season’ lasting for up to 9 months of the year. 

Springtime is the prime allergy season for sufferers, though increasingly people are experiencing allergic symptoms throughout the year.

Early springtime hay fever is most often caused by pollens of common trees. Late springtime pollens come mostly from grasses.

Occasionally fungal spores also cause allergies, and these also occur all year round. Another cause of perennial allergic rhinitis, as all-year seasonal allergy is called, is house dust mites, animals and moulds in and around the house.

What are the symptoms of seasonal allergies?

Winter allergies cause similar symptoms to spring and summer allergies i.e. an itchy nose and eyes, sneezing and watery eyes, and are generally triggered by the use of heaters or fireplaces. The mould spores and insect parts that are often trapped in these objects are released into the air and find their way into the nose, setting off a reaction.

Other indoor triggers are animals (that bring pollen in from outside) and mites (they proliferate in humid areas, heated homes and during late autumn).

The problem with winter allergy symptoms is that they can easily be misdiagnosed as a common cold or flu.

If symptoms persist for longer than 10 days, it is more likely an allergy than a cold or flu. If not treated and medicated correctly, allergies can linger for weeks or even months.

What is my best defense against seasonal allergies?

  • Check your area’s pollen count with weather websites such as AccuWeather 

  • Know your allergy triggers

  • Stay indoors and close windows at night during high pollen seasons

  • Remember, rain increases pollen and outdoor mould

  • Wash your dogs when they come in from outdoors

  • Wear a protective mask when working outdoors or gardening

  • Close your windows at night. 

Which medicines work best?

Antihistamines are the most commonly used and effective anti-allergy drugs. 

The older, "first generation" antihistamines have side-effects of sedation. Newer "second generation" antihistamine have less or no sedating side effects. The newest "third generation" antihistamines are non-sedating metabolites (breakdown products) of the second generation products.

Many of the newer products also have mild anti-inflammatory effects.

Patients may respond differently to the different antihistamines. If one antihistamine does not work for you, your doctor may well substitute it with another one from the same or different class.

Ask your pharmacist for a non-sedating, over-the-counter anthihistamine such as those that contain the antihistamine cetirizine.

Read more:

The most common allergens
Separating allergy facts from fiction
How to cope with seasonal allergies

Image: girl sneezing, Shutterstock

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Allergy expert

Dr Morris is the Principal Allergist at the Cape Town and Johannesburg Allergy Clinics with postgraduate diplomas in Allergology, Dermatology, Paediatrics and Family Medicine dealing with both adult and childhood allergies. obesity and diabetes societies and runs a trial centre for new drugs.

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