What causes fall allergies and how to prevent irritating symptoms before they start

What causes fall allergies and how to prevent irritating symptoms before they start

A woman sits on the ground, laughing while a small child puts fall leaves in the woman's hair.

Indoor and outdoor allergies affect over 20 million US adults and six million children annually. And while spring is generally considered the worst allergy season, the fall also brings allergy irritation for many.

Related Article Module: How to manage your seasonal allergies

Turns out, fall allergies are typically due to the same underlying trigger as spring allergies: pollen. However, the difference is what types of plants produce more pollen in the fall compared to spring and summer.

Knowing where these plants live and when they start to release pollen can give you a good sense of when to expect a fall allergy flare-up. Typically, the worst fall allergies are in parts of the Midwest and east coast where you see long autumns, says Mahboobeh Mahdavinia, MD, an associate professor of allergy and immunology at Rush University Medical Center.

Here's our guide to help you prepare for those finicky fall allergies and the steps you can take to relieve your symptoms.

What causes fall allergies?

During the fall, the following pollen sources and irritants are most likely to cause allergies:

Weeds

The pollen from ragweed causes allergies in over 23 million people each year, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. Pollen counts reach their highest levels in mid-September, and the wind can blow pollen over 700 miles.

As a result, ragweeds are a particularly disruptive fall allergen. They're a hardy soft-stemmed plant with 17 species in North America, concentrating in the eastern and Midwestern US.

"Classically, we talk about trees being springtime, grass in the summertime, and weeds in the fall," says Matthew Ellison, MD, an assistant professor of head and neck surgery at Duke University. "And that can be any weed. So some parts of the country don't have ragweed, but there are other weeds that pollinate in the fall."

Other common weeds that can cause fall allergies include:

  • Pigweed
  • Lambs quarters
  • Wormwood

Grasses

Grasses release small, light pollen that the wind can carry for hundreds of miles, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.

Ellison notes that in warmer regions of the US like the South, grasses can trigger allergies because they continue to pollinate in the temperate autumns and winters of these seasons.

Mold

Mold is another common trigger for fall allergies. Indoor molds grow in moist places, such as leaky roofs, windows, and pipes. Mold can also grow on wood, wallpaper, insulation, carpet, drywall, fabric, and upholstery.

Outdoor mold can also exacerbate allergies, especially in the fall. Autumn causes the leaves to fall from trees, and mold grows on the decomposing plant matter. Those allergic to mold may experience allergy symptoms while raking leaves, because disturbing the leaves can send mold spores into the air and up the nose.

The American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology suggests wearing a face mask, such as the N95 mask, when raking leaves, gardening, or mowing the lawn to prevent mold spores from triggering allergies.

Fall allergy symptoms

Pollen from grass, weeds, and mold spores can irritate the nose and cause allergic rhinitis, aka hay fever.

Symptoms of allergic rhinitis include:

How to treat fall allergies

There are several pillars to treating seasonal allergies, says Ellison. These include:

  • Avoidance. If possible, avoid going outdoors as much as possible during the fall season if you're triggered by plants that pollinate in the fall. Ellison says that if you do go outside, you should take a shower to wash off any pollen and reduce the chance of carrying allergens indoors.
  • Medication. Antihistamines like Claritin or Zyrtec help block the body's allergy response, relieving symptoms such as a runny nose, itchy eyes, and sinus decongestion. Nasal sprays like Flonase can also provide relief for nasal congestion or a stuffy nose.
  • Allergy immunotherapy. These are allergy shots or allergy drops. They're a long-term solution for allergy symptoms, but they may not be right for everyone. For more information, read about whether allergy shots are worth it for you.
  • Surgery. Ellison says surgeries, like septoplasty, can help those who don't get relief from medication. These surgeries can help people breathe better.

There are also many natural remedies for allergies that can help relieve your symptoms. Ellison suggests trying saline washes or spray, which is a salt-based solution designed to clear away mucus from the nasal passages and moisturize the area.

A 2018 study found that saline sprays can help alleviate allergic rhinitis in adults and children, when compared to those not using saline sprays.

Another study found that daily saline nasal irrigation shows no adverse side effects. However, Ellison says to avoid saline nasal sprays with added decongestants like Afrin or Neosynephrine, as decongestants can be habit-forming and harmful for your sinuses.

Ellison doesn't recommend herbal or homeopathic remedies because there's not as much clinical data supporting their efficacy. Overall, Mahdavinia says treating fall allergies with antihistamines is best practice.

"Taking daily non-sedating antihistamines is usually the first line," Mahdavinia says. "But those with more intense symptoms need to be treated with intranasal medications. They [allergy treatments] are best to be started ahead of the allergens peak to be most effective."

Insider's takeaway

If you know you have seasonal fall allergies, you should consider starting allergy treatment at the beginning of September. This will make your treatment more effective and help reduce the severity of your symptoms if they occur.

Your fall allergies from outdoor allergens should subside as winter approaches, and morning temperatures start to get below 50 °F. However, mold can remain prevalent until there is frost, Mahdavinia says.

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