Environmental Allergies: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment Methods

An Overview of Environmental Allergies

Sometimes, exposure to something within your home or close surroundings can trigger environmental allergy symptoms. Unfortunately, unlike seasonal allergies, environmental allergies can persist all year long.

Read more in this overview of the causes, symptoms, and treatment of environmental allergies.

adult woman in the nature suffering allergy

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What Are Environmental Allergies?

Allergies are a chronic condition that occurs when your immune system reacts to a foreign substance. They can be caused by food, something inhaled into the lungs, through injection, or by touch. 

Environmental allergies occur when the body’s immune system overreacts to substances in the environment that would otherwise be harmless, according to New York-based allergist and immunologist Dr. Payel Gupta, MD, FACAAI.

“Unlike seasonal allergies, environmental allergies can persist all year long,” she tells Verywell. “Substances that trigger environmental allergies include pollen, grass pollen, weed pollen, house dust mites, pet dander, cockroaches, and mold.”

Common Causes

Environmental allergies can be triggered by several allergens, including dust mites. These are tiny bugs that live in bedding, carpets, and furniture.

Other causes of environmental allergies include pollen from trees and weeds outside, as well as dander from pets, mold, and droppings from cockroaches.

Irritants can also ignite environmental allergies. These include cigarette smoke, odors from cosmetic and household cleaning products, cold air and cold infections, as well as exhaust emitted from cars.

Symptoms

“Symptoms of environmental allergies tend to vary from person to person,” Dr. Gupta explains. “However, symptoms usually manifest as runny nose, congestion, sneezing, itchy nose, itchy and watery eyes, itchy skin, or rashes.”

More severe reactions are possible and may result in shortness of breath or chest tightness, and might trigger asthma, says physician assistant Rebecca Rosenberger, MMSc, PA-C, of the New Jersey-based Allergy Diagnostic & Treatment Center.

“However, environmental allergies caused by dust mites or pollen are usually not associated with anaphylaxis,” Rosenberger explains.

Diagnosis and Treatment

To diagnose and treat environmental allergies, Dr. Gupta recommends consulting with an allergy specialist to identify the cause of your environmental allergies.

To determine what is causing allergies, allergy specialists generally conduct two allergy tests: “A skin prick test,” according to Dr. Gupta, “exposes the skin to a tiny amount of an allergen to determine if signs of an allergic reaction occur, [and] a blood test confirms results of skin testing by testing a blood sample for immunoglobulin E (IgE), which are antibodies produced by the body during an allergic reaction.”

Once the cause of your allergies has been determined, you can talk with your allergy specialist about taking different measures to help your environmental allergies. These include over-the-counter medications such as oral antihistamines, steroid nasal sprays, antihistamine eye drops, or a nasal saline rinse.

Treating Symptoms vs. the Condition

Dr. Gupta stresses that it is important to remember that over-the-counter medication treats symptoms and not the underlying condition.

Home Remedies

To keep your environmental allergies under control, Dr. Gupta advises cleaning your clothes and bedding often.

“Avoid line-drying your clothes and bedding outdoors when your local pollen count is high,” she recommends. “Also, be sure to change and wash clothes if they’ve been exposed to pollen.”

When to Seek Professional Treatment

If home remedies or over-the-counter medications aren’t helping manage your allergy symptoms, Dr. Gupta says, “It may be time to talk to your allergy specialist about allergy immunotherapy, which treats the underlying cause of environmental allergies using a person’s own immune system.”

Types of Allergy Immunotherapy

  1. Sublingual immunotherapy tablets: This non-invasive, once-daily oral medication can be taken at home, after receiving the first dose at a doctor’s office, according to Dr. Gupta.
  2. Allergy shots: This type of immunotherapy is arguably the most effective, as it is the only treatment available that actually changes your immune system. As a result, it helps to improve your allergy symptoms as well as prevent new allergies from developing.
  3. Medications: Decongestants and antihistamines can help reduce allergy symptoms. Allergy specialists can also prescribe corticosteroids to treat inflammation in the nose.

Ways to Prevent Environmental Allergies

Thankfully, there are easy ways to manage environmental allergy attacks. To protect yourself from pollen, Dr. Gupta advises keeping windows and doors shut, especially in the early morning. “This can prevent pollen from entering your home,” she says. 

If indoor allergens are triggering your symptoms, frequently dusting your home and washing sheets and bedding in hot water can also make a tremendous difference.

To really take control of your allergies, though, it’s always best to talk to an allergy specialist about potential allergy treatment options. This can be especially helpful if over-the-counter medications haven’t improved your symptoms.

A Word From Verywell

Environmental allergies are triggered by exposure to something within your home or close surroundings.

Triggers of environmental allergies include pollen, grass pollen, weed pollen, house dust mites, pet dander, cockroaches, and mold. Environmental allergies can be treated with over-the-counter medications such as oral antihistamines, steroid nasal sprays, antihistamine eye drops, or nasal saline rinse.

However, if over-the-counter medications aren’t improving your allergy symptoms, it’s best to consult with an allergy specialist. These professionals can help you explore prescription options such as allergy immunotherapy, which treats the underlying cause of environmental allergies using a person’s own immune system.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can immunotherapy help with environmental allergies?

    Yes. Dr. Gupta says, “Immunotherapy treats the underlying cause of environmental allergies using a person’s own immune system.” Currently, immunotherapy is available in the form of shots, drops, and sublingual immunotherapy tablets.

  • How many people are affected by environmental allergies in the United States?

    Allergies are a lot more common than you may think. More than 50 million Americans experience various types of allergies each year, and allergies are the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the United States.

  • How can you tell the difference between environmental allergies and other allergies?

    “What differentiates environmental allergies from other allergies is the source of the allergen,” says allergy and infectious disease expert Jonathan Rigby. “Environmental allergies are an immune response to various triggers in a person’s surroundings that they inhale or come in contact with during normal activities. Contrariwise, food allergies result from different allergen origins,” he explains.

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Article Sources
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  1. Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Allergy facts and figures.

  2. American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Environmental trigger avoidance.

  3. American College of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology. Allergy immunotherapy.