What to Do During an Allergy Attack

Approximately 50 million Americans have some form of allergic disease, and the number is increasing. Allergy attacks, or allergic reactions, occur when your immune system detects an allergen (a normally harmless substance) and reacts abnormally. Allergens include pollen, mold, dust mites, animal dander, or something else.

Woman having allergy attack outdoors

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Anyone may experience an allergy attack. Depending on your exposure to allergens, you may have attacks frequently or rarely. They may last for a few hours or be ongoing for weeks.

Allergy attack symptoms are typically uncomfortable and can include mild symptoms such as a runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, itchy or watery eyes, scratchy or sore throat, post-nasal drip, and cough.

In some cases, allergens trigger life-threatening symptoms such as an asthma attack (difficulty breathing due to airway constriction) or anaphylactic reaction (anaphylaxis).

What Is Anaphylaxis?

Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency that causes the airways to close. If you have symptoms of anaphylaxis, call 911 and use an epinephrine injector (Epipen) if you have one. This condition can progress rapidly and be fatal.

This article will discuss common triggers of allergy attacks, medications and natural remedies, how to prevent allergy attacks, and when to see an allergy specialist.

Common Triggers

Many allergens are harmless substances that your immune system sees as harmful and causes an allergic reaction. Common triggers for allergy attacks include pollen, mold, dust, dander, and more.

Pollen

Pollen is a powdery substance produced by trees, grasses, weeds, and flowering plants for reproduction. It is one of the most common triggers for seasonal allergies (also known as hay fever). Pollen can be transported from plant to plant by the wind, birds, or insects.

Pollen is most active in the spring and summer (March to June). In some cases, pollen can still be present in October (especially during a warm year) but dissipates when cold temperatures and frost set in.

Mold

Mold (a type of fungus) can trigger allergy attacks by the spores they release to reproduce. Outdoors, molds grow on rotting logs, fallen leaves, compost piles, grasses, and grains. Indoors, mold can grow in damp areas, including kitchens, bathrooms, and basements.

A mold allergy can trigger symptoms such as a runny nose, cough, and headaches.

Dust

Dust is a mixture of different particles, including hair, dead skin cells, pollen, soil particles, and microscopic organisms known as dust mites. Dust mites are the most common cause of dust allergies. Specifically, the protein in their feces causes allergies.

Dust mites feed off dead skin cells from humans and pets. They are found where those accumulate, such as upholstered furniture, mattresses, and carpets. They can trigger hay fever symptoms.

Dander

Dander (also known as pet dander) is composed of tiny, microscopic flecks of skin shed by cats, dogs, rodents, birds, and other animals with fur or feathers. These bits of skin can cause reactions in people who are specifically allergic to these triggers. Dander can easily stick to furniture, bedding, fabrics, and many items carried into and out of the home.

What to Do

Many mild to moderate allergic reactions can be treated at home or with over-the-counter (OTC) medications. The following treatments are commonly used to reduce the symptoms of an allergic reaction:

Antihistamines

Antihistamines are a class of drugs that can help to treat most minor allergic reactions regardless of the cause. They can be taken in oral, nasal spray, eye drop, and injected forms.

Antihistamines block the effect of histamine, which reduces allergy symptoms such as runny or stuffy nose, cough, headaches, sneezing, itchy eyes, and more. Common over-the-counter antihistamines include Zyrtec (cetirizine), Allegra (fexofenadine), and Claritin (loratadine).

What and How Much Antihistamine Is Right For Me?

Because many antihistamines can be bought without a prescription, always ask your healthcare provider what type of antihistamine and exact dosage is right for you. Be sure to read the label carefully to know how many times a day to take it, including any potential side effects.

Nasal Decongestants

Nasal decongestants are medications used to treat congestion (stuffy nose, runny nose, and more). They work by causing blood vessels to constrict (become narrower). This helps relieve congestion caused by the dilation (expansion) of blood vessels in the nasal passages.

There are many nasal decongestants available in the market. These include over-the-counter (OTC) decongestants, which come in oral forms (pills, tablets, capsules, liquids) and nasal sprays.

Combination products such as Tylenol Sinus, Advil Cold & Sinus, and Aleve Cold & Sinus are also available. Although these medications help with decongestion, they also relieve other symptoms such as sinus headaches, pain, and body aches.

Anti-Inflammatory Medication

Steroids (also known as corticosteroids) can reduce inflammation associated with allergies and allergic asthma. They do so by mimicking the effects of cortisol, which is a stress hormone. This medication is available in a nasal spray (OTC or by prescription).

For people who have asthma, a healthcare provider may prescribe an inhaler or oral forms of steroids.

Natural Remedies

Allergies may impact your quality of life, and you may wish to seek out natural remedies to decrease or relieve allergy symptoms. However, before you consider using a natural remedy, discuss the idea with your healthcare provider first, as some may pose notable risks.

Common natural remedies that may decrease allergy symptoms include exercise, nasal irrigation, vitamins, antioxidants, and more.

Prevention

An allergy management plan is crucial in preventing allergic attacks. It is also necessary to control your allergies. Work with your healthcare provider to develop an effective management plan.

Although preventing allergic attacks depends on the type of allergy you have, the following are some ways to manage your allergies:

  • Avoid your allergens: This is important, but not always easy. When you can’t avoid an allergen, try to reduce your contact with it.
  • Take your medicines as prescribed: Medications are essential to help manage allergy symptoms.
  • If you are at risk for anaphylaxis, keep your epinephrine auto-injectors with you at all times: Epinephrine is the only treatment for a severe allergic reaction. It is only available through a prescription from your healthcare provider.

For some allergies, an allergist can provide allergy shots to desensitize you to the allergen so you will have fewer allergy attacks.

When to See an Allergist

An allergist is a doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of asthma and other allergic diseases. While some allergies (such as a mild case of hay fever) may not require medical attention, see your healthcare provider if your allergy symptoms do not improve or become worse.

Summary

Allergy attacks are triggered by normally harmless substances (allergens) your immune system reacts to. Common allergens include pollen, mold, dust, and pet dander. You may experience congestion, drainage, itchy or watery eyes, sneezing, and cough. More severe reactions include asthma attacks and anaphylaxis.

Talk to your healthcare provider about what you can do when you have an allergy attack. They may recommend antihistamines, decongestants, nasal steroids, nasal irrigation, or other remedies.

A Word From Verywell

Allergy attacks can produce uncomfortable symptoms, which can sometimes be life-threatening. Although allergies may impact your quality of life, know that you are not alone. There are treatments available to help manage your symptoms.

However, it is important to understand your allergy triggers and your body's response to know if and when you are having a dangerous reaction that requires immediate medical attention.

To prevent allergy attacks, be sure to discuss with your healthcare provider about creating an effective management plan. Having open and honest conversations with your healthcare provider, along with staying up-to-date on new allergy treatments and therapies, can improve your overall quality of life.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long does an allergy attack last?

    A mild allergy attack may last from a few hours to several weeks, particularly if the allergen remains in the air. If you have a history of severe allergy attacks such as an asthma attack or anaphylactic reaction (anaphylaxis), seek medical attention immediately.

  • What does an allergy attack feel like?

    Because there are so many different types of allergies, your allergy symptoms may look very different from another person’s. In mild cases, you may experience sneezing, runny or stuffy nose, itching, sore throat, or watery eyes. In severe cases, difficulty breathing, confusion, and dizziness can occur.

  • Are allergies genetic?

    Multiple studies have shown that allergies are hereditary, or passed down through genes from parents to their children. In fact, children are 50% more likely to develop an allergy if one of their parents has one, and they are 75% more likely to have allergies if both of their parents have them.

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7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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