46% of Americans have seasonal allergies — and 22% have missed work or school because of it, new Yahoo/YouGov poll finds

A woman sneezing due to allergies
Sneezing is the most common allergy symptom people reported, affecting 77% of respondents. (Getty Images)

Allergy season can be brutal for people who are affected by pollen from trees, weeds and grass, so much so that the constant congestion and itchy, watery eyes can make it harder to show up for work or school. A new Yahoo News/YouGov poll of 1,746 U.S. adults conducted between April 11-15 found that 46% of Americans have seasonal allergies, and 22% have missed work or school because of their symptoms. While allergies often begin during childhood, Dr. Sebastian Lighvani, an allergist at Northwell Lenox Hill Hospital, says they can develop at any age. But for those who have been dealing with seasonal allergies for years, it can seem like allergy season is getting progressively worse — and that’s because it is. “We’re seeing a greater expression of allergies and prevalence over the last few decades,” Lighvani tells Yahoo Life.

Environmental factors play a part, including climate change. As temperature levels rise, pollen seasons are starting earlier and lasting longer. “Unfortunately, this means patients are not only becoming more allergic but are also being exposed to a lot more allergens,” Lighvani says.

That can lead to dealing with a slew of uncomfortable symptoms. Sneezing was the most common allergy symptom people reported, affecting 77% of respondents. That was followed by watery, itchy or red eyes (67%), itchy nose or throat (60%), congestion (59%), post-nasal drip or mucus that runs down back of throat (56%), coughing (46%) and fatigue (35%).

To help alleviate these symptoms, 72% of respondents said they take over-the-counter or prescription allergy medication. However, more women (76%) turn to medications than men (67%) to help control their symptoms. While 88% of people take their allergy medications sometimes or always, 11% rarely take them.

But if symptoms are bothersome or have a negative impact on quality of life, Lighvani says it’s time to take medications. Dr. Joshua Brandon, a family medicine specialist at Norton Community Medical Associates, agrees, telling Yahoo Life: “If allergies are consistently causing runny nose, itchy eyes, post nasal drip or worsening control of asthma then it would be advantageous to start medications. Many of these over-the-counter and generic allergy medications are usually very affordable.”

While newer generation antihistamines such as Allegra, Zyrtec, Claritin and Xyzal are effective at blocking histamine, Lighvani says that over-the-counter nasal sprays like Flonase and Nasonex can be more effective as first line agents for people who have chronic allergies. During an allergic reaction, he explains that other inflammatory mediators are released causing an influx of inflammatory cells.

“Antihistamines have little effect on these pathways and as such you might see an initial improvement but as the season progresses, these other chronic elements of allergic inflammation play a much more important role, and antihistamines lose effectiveness because the problem is no longer a histamine problem; it is a multifaceted inflammatory problem,” Lighvani explains.

Intranasal sprays can help reduce that inflammatory response.

While it doesn’t matter the time of day you take allergy medications, consistency is key, says Lighvani. He recommends taking them either right before bed or when you wake up so you have a routine. However, if antihistamines make you feel sedated, take them at night.

“If you try these medications and they’re not effective, then I recommend getting evaluated by an allergy specialist because they can identify what is driving your symptoms and come up with a comprehensive treatment plan in terms of avoidance, appropriate medications to use and potentially allergen immunotherapy,” he says.

A type of allergy immunotherapy (AIT) called allergy shots has been around for more than 100 years, and are as close to a cure as possible, says Lighvani. The shots work by gradually exposing a person to higher amounts of what they are allergic to so that they develop immune tolerance.

“If your problem is driven by allergies, it can be very effective and benefits are noticed at the latest by six to 12 months of treatment,” Lighvani says. He adds that for those on allergen immunotherapy, about half “are cured or close to being cured,” about one-quarter see an improvement in their symptoms and one-quarter will “revert back to their baseline” after discontinuing treatment.

Brandon says that, for the more than 20% of Americans who have missed work or school because of their allergy symptoms, it may in some cases be a virus or bacterial infection instead. If your symptoms are interfering with your ability to go to work or school, Brandon recommends starting with your primary care doctor for an evaluation and a referral to an allergist for further investigation.

If it’s clear that your allergies are to blame, an allergist can identify what is driving your symptoms and offer an effective treatment plan. “For patients who have seasonal allergies, I highly recommend starting treatment, especially nasal sprays, early in the season or before the season starts because these medications often take up to two to three weeks to really kick in,” Lighvani says. “And so you don’t want to get into a situation where the horse is out of the barn and at that point it’s a lot more difficult to try to control the inflammation.”

He also recommends the following to try to keep allergies under control:

  • If feasible, avoid going outside on high pollen count days, especially in the early morning or midday.

  • While inside, close your windows and have the air conditioning running.

  • Be consistent and compliant with your medication regime, especially nasal sprays and antihistamines.

  • Consider allergy shots if you’ve tried over-the-counter medications and other measures but still experience debilitating symptoms.