Do You Have Environmental Allergies? What They Are and How to Relieve Them

Environmental allergies are a leading cause of cold-like symptoms.

Published:
January 10, 2022
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Updated:
January 21, 2022
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Contributor:
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8 minutes
Ivor A. Emanuel, MD

Medically reviewed by

Erica Dermer
Erica DermerErica Dermer
Consumer and Patient Engagement at imaware
Erica is as a food & wellness expert with an established reputation as a celiac & autoimmune disease influencer. Writing, editing, appearing on TV and publishing her own book, Erica campaigns and supports those with autoimmune diseases.
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Ivor A. Emanuel, MD
Ivor A. Emanuel, MD
Allergy & Otolaryngology Doctor
Dr Emanuel is a board-certified otolaryngologist and is considered a national expert in the field of sublingual immunotherapy and allergy blood testing. Dr Emanuel has been in practice for more than 25 years.
Learn about our content process

Highlights

• Environmental allergies affect millions of people each year.

• Pollen, dust mites and pet dander are some of the most common allergens.

• A blood test can help determine if you have allergies.

• There is no cure for allergies, but there are medicines and strategies that can help.

If you suffer from chronic cold-like symptoms such as itchy eyes, a runny nose and sneezing, you may be dealing with an environmental allergy, a leading cause of chronic illness in the U.S.¹

You can be allergic to something in your indoor environment (think dust mites), your outdoor environment (think pollen) or both. 

Environmental allergy symptoms

Environmental allergies can feel like colds and other respiratory viruses. Symptoms happen when your immune system mistakes a harmless substance for something harmful and reacts to it by producing histamines, substances designed to expel perceived invaders. 

Allergy symptoms can include: 

  • Runny, itchy or stuffy nose
  • Sneezing
  • Itchy, watery or red eyes
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Asthma
  • Itchy, dry, flaky skin or red skin (atopic dermatitis or eczema)
  • Drowsiness and fatigue

Do environmental allergies go away? 

Allergies can change over time, getting better, worse, or sometimes disappearing altogether. So how do you get rid of environmental allergies? Unfortunately, there's little you can do to banish them entirely. Fortunately, there are many ways to avoid triggers and treat symptoms.

How do you manage allergy symptoms?

You may not be able to eliminate your allergies, but here are some steps you can take to minimize and manage symptoms: 

  • Identify your triggers by keeping a diary of symptoms and exposures or by visiting an allergist.
  • Avoid triggers and reduce any exposures you can control.
  • Change your clothes and shoes when you come inside to avoid tracking in allergenic substances.
  • Talk to your pharmacist about over-the-counter remedies such as antihistamines or steroid nasal sprays
  • Talk to your allergist about prescription treatments such as allergy shots or sublingual immunotherapy (small amounts of allergens placed under the tongue, designed to desensitize you to your triggers). Over time, immunotherapy may significantly reduce your symptoms.

What environmental factors trigger allergies?

Here are five of the most common causes of environmental allergies: 

Dust mites

If you find yourself sneezing, coughing or wheezing whenever you vacuum or dust, you may have a dust mite allergy. Dust mites are tiny pests that feed on dead skin cells and, according to the American Lung Association, "can appear in nearly all homes." ²

You can help mitigate the effects of dust mites by wearing a mask when you clean, frequently washing bed linens in hot water and removing carpeting.

Pet dander

Up to 20% of all people are allergic to pets,³ specifically to the dander, urine or saliva that collects on their fur (which can also carry pollen and other outdoor allergens into homes). Cat allergies are twice as common as dog allergies.

Antihistamines may help, as may seeing an allergist for animal-specific immunotherapy. Patients can receive shots or sublingual drops to train the body to acclimate to pet allergies.  

Household pests: rats, mice and cockroaches

According to The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine, urine proteins from rats and mice are so allergenic that around a third of people who come in frequent contact with rodents will develop allergies to them. Cockroach saliva and droppings are common allergens, triggering year-round allergy symptoms and even asthma attacks.

Whether you have a rodent or cockroach allergy or just want to rid your home of these bacteria-harboring pests, your best solution is to engage a pest control service for help.

Mold

"There is always a little mold everywhere," says the CDC. It grows indoors and outdoors, and even when we can't see it, its spores are in the air. Fortunately, not all molds are likely to cause allergies.

Allergenic or not, you can't stop the weather events — thunderstorms, high winds or temperature changes — that release mold spores into the outdoor environment, but you can reduce mold growth in your home

To keep household mold to a minimum, the CDC recommends maintaining low humidity (a dehumidifier can help), ensuring your home is well-ventilated, fixing leaks and other unintentional moisture sources, cleaning with mold-killing products and removing upholstery or carpeting that has gotten wet and can't adequately dry.¹⁰ 

Trees, weeds and grasses

Pollen is one of the most common environmental allergens, released in the air as part of the reproduction cycle of weeds, grasses, trees and other plants. If you've ever been diagnosed with 'hay fever' or, more accurately, 'seasonal allergic rhinitis,' then you have a pollen allergy.¹¹ 

According to the Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America, some trees, weeds and grasses are more likely to cause symptoms than others, including cedar, birch and oak trees, ragweed, sagebrush, lambs quarters, tumbleweed and pigweed¹² and Bermuda, Johnson, Kentucky, orchard and timothy grasses.¹³ 

An IgE allergy test can help determine which plants might be causing your symptoms. And knowing the specific trees, weeds, and grasses in your local environment will let you make allergy-friendly gardening choices. In addition, you can manage day-to-day symptoms by planning your outdoor activities with help from your local weather forecast's pollen counts.

Summary

Environmental allergies are a common chronic illness. While you can't eliminate your allergies, management strategies will help. These include taking an allergy test, avoiding known allergens, cleansing your home of allergens, taking over-the-counter allergy medications and visiting an allergist for advice or treatments. 

REFERENCES

1. Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Allergy Facts. Accessed November 19, 2021.

2. American Lung Association. Dust Mites. Accessed November 23, 2021. 

3. Allergy Asthma & Immunology Research. Dog and Cat Allergies: Current State of Diagnostic Approaches and Challenges. Accessed November 24, 2021.

4. American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Pet Allergy. Accessed November 24, 2021.

5. Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Pet Allergy: Are You Allergic to Dogs and Cats? Accessed November 23, 2021. 

6. Allergic Living. Nothing To Sneeze At: New Strategies For Controlling Cat Allergy. Accessed November 24, 2021.

7. The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine. Allergic to your rodent or rabbit? Easy tips to prevent and control your allergy. Accessed November 23, 2021.

8. Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Cockroach Allergy. Accessed November 23, 2021.  

9. CDC. Basic Facts about Mold and Dampness. Accessed November 24, 2021.

10. CDC. You Can Control Mold. Accessed November 24, 2021.

11. Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Pollen Allergy. Accessed November 24, 2021.

12. Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Pollen Allergy. Accessed November 24, 2021.

13. Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. What if You're Allergic to Grass? 11 Steps to Managing Grass Pollen Allergy. Accessed November 24, 2021.

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