Hay fever, allergies, allergic rhinitis… they’re all names for that pesky sneezing, itchy, runny nose that impacts at least 20 million adults each year. Some allergy sufferers only encounter symptoms during the spring or fall; the not-so-lucky ones can experience them year round. But while allergies may be all-too familiar to many Americans, they can also be much more than just a nuisance.
“I think that allergies can be trivialized, especially by the people that don’t have allergies,” Dr. Clifford Bassett, clinical assistant professor at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine and founder and medical director of Allergy and Asthma Care of NY, tells Yahoo Life.
This can lead allergy sufferers to downplay their own symptoms. Dr. Miriam Anand, an advisor to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, tells Yahoo Life that allergy patients often try to just “push through,” even when they’re feeling miserable.
“If others in the family have allergies that are worse than theirs, they may feel like their symptoms aren’t as bad as their relative’s, or they feel like their symptoms are normal because everyone in the family has them,” says Anand. “They may also get used to a certain baseline, and get used to their symptoms unless they get really bad.”
But it turns out this blasé approach to allergies can be harmful to your health, work life and even sex life. And with spring allergy season quickly approaching, here are five reasons you may want to take them more seriously.
1. Allergies can lead to other infections
Poorly controlled allergies can lead to upper respiratory infections.
All that congestion caused by allergies can lead to swelling of the nasal passages, throat and Eustachian tubes, trapping mucus, bacteria or viruses and resulting in ear or sinus infections.
This is especially true in children, whose Eustachian tubes are narrower and more horizontal, making them easier to clog. Recurring ear infections and excess fluid, if untreated, can also lead to developmental delays.
“If a two year old has bad allergies and they’ve got a lot of fluid behind their ears and their hearing’s a little muffled, then that’s going to affect their speech development,” Dr. Mark Corbett, president-elect of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology tells Yahoo Life. “So there can be subtle things ...that you don’t even realize until it’s too late.”
2. Allergies can exacerbate asthma
If you have asthma, common allergens like pollen, dust mites and animal dander can also cause symptoms that affect the lungs and airways, setting off an asthma attack.
“No question, we know allergies can trigger asthma, and obviously asthma can be very severe and even life threatening in some patients,” Corbett says. “I think anybody with asthma that’s requiring controller medications... should probably at least be evaluated for allergies at some point in their life.”
There is also the possibility that allergies may increase the risk of developing asthma later in life.
“Having seasonal, indoor allergies is definitely a risk factor over ten, twenty years to develop asthma, and we know that by an elegant study done at Brown University about thirty years ago,” Bassett says.
The study compared college students with allergies and without, and found that over time there was about a two to threefold increase in asthma in individuals with allergic rhinitis.
3. Allergies can reduce your overall quality of life
An often dismissed — but no less damaging — effect of untreated allergies is the toll they can take on general well-being.
“The really important thing with allergies is quality of life,” Corbett explains. “It really is probably the most important thing — more than just the secondary infections and the other issues.”
“When we look at quality of life surveys and services that we do with patients when we’re doing clinical research,” he adds, “you’ll see that allergic rhinitis will be as severe to patients as things like heart disease.”
Fear of triggering allergy symptoms can prevent some people from enjoying outdoor activities they once loved, or force them to avoid cuddling a beloved pet.
The congestion caused by allergies can also lead to difficulty breathing, which can lead to poor sleep quality. Bassett points out that even if allergy sufferers are getting nine hours of sleep at night, constant tossing and turning means they’re not getting that deep, restorative REM sleep needed to wake up feeling well-rested.
4. Allergies can impact your performance at work
The impact of allergies on Americans’ day-to-day functioning is no joke. A 2007 study found that allergy sufferers missed an average of one hour of work per week over the course of a year — with much of that time concentrated during spring and fall allergy seasons.
And even when they do show up for work, many allergy-ridden employees aren’t able to give it their all.
“It’s well known that allergies can lead to something called ‘presenteeism,’ which refers to someone being physically present who has trouble performing work duties due to inability to concentrate,” Anand says. “Think about what it feels like when you are trying to work or concentrate when you have a cold, and imagine feeling like that for months at a time.”
“They’re there, but they’re really not there,” Corbett says of those who try to push through the work day. “How well are they functioning? Are they working at basically half of their normal effect because they’re feeling so crummy from their allergies?”
Yet research conducted by OnePoll in conjunction with Trane® Residential found that forty-seven percent of allergy sufferers felt guilty for taking time off work. As many as one in five of the research participants admitted to lying to their boss so they could nurse their allergy symptoms.
5. Allergies can wreak havoc on your self-esteem… and sex life
Allergies’ can also be a confidence-killer — including in the bedroom. A study published in 2009 found that 83 percent of people with allergic rhinitis said it affected amorous activities at least sometimes, and almost 18 percent said their allergies nearly always got in the way of their sex life. The author of the study told ABC News that while the reason for allergies’ effect on sexual activity isn't certain, the less-than-attractive symptoms associated with allergies were a possible culprit that could discourage intimacy.
“Sex life can be interfered with, because they perceive when they have allergies that they may not look their very best,” Bassett, who was not involved in the study, observes of allergy-sufferers. “They may have puffy eyelids, runny nose and redness.”
Those itchy, watery eyes can also make your usual grooming routine more difficult.
“Many of my patients… may wind up, fifty percent of them, not able to wear their contact lenses throughout the season if they don’t have what I call an allergy action plan or seasonal action plan,” Bassett says.
So what can you do about it?
The best thing you can do to combat allergies? Start prepping early.
“My patients in February and March in New York City go on what I call ‘allergy alert,’” Bassett says. “They know what their pollen sensitivities are, when they’re coming out, how to track it, and I get them to use safe, over the counter prescription remedies as needed two weeks before the season kicks in.”
Corbett recommends nasal steroid sprays as the go-to medication for allergic rhinitis. If that isn’t doing the complete job, he suggests adding a nasal antihistamine spray to your allergy regimen. Antihistamines work by blocking the chemical in your body that makes tissues in your nose itch and swell and results in those dreaded allergy symptoms.
He also encourages patients to use medications proactively.
“In my spring allergy people, which I’m seeing now for their checkups, I’ll say, ‘Put a note in your iPhone: on Valentine’s Day, start your nose spray,’” Corbett says. “It’ll work much better than if you wait until after they start having their symptoms.”
As the days get longer and warmer and outdoor activities pick back up, taking some basic preventative steps can also go a long way. Wearing a hat and sunglasses on windy days can keep pollen from getting in your eyes and hair and triggering symptoms. When you get home, showering and switching outfits can help you avoid any allergens that may be clinging to your clothes, hair and skin.
If you’re still suffering, it may be time to get your allergies some extra love from a board certified allergist.
Anand says experiencing sinus, ear pain or chest symptoms — which can include coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath or chest tightness — are signs that you should seek further care. Severe flare ups or having to frequently miss work or school may also mean it’s time to see a specialist.
The ACAAI website can help you find qualified allergists in your area, who can create a long term treatment plan to hopefully nip those allergies in the bud.