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Seasonal Allergies: What MDs Think You Should Know 

Is your sore throat allergies or a cold? Plus: the role 'botanical sexism' has to play!

Pollen drifts innocuously through the air. From dusk until dawn, you just can’t seem to stop sneezing. Then one morning you wake up with a sore throat and a cough. Is it that cold your neighbor had last week, or can allergies cause a sore throat?  

It can be hard to determine what’s what during allergy season, especially as they become longer and more intense each year. We reached out to top MDs and allergists to answer our most pressing questions about seasonal allergies, including symptoms, treatments and why they seem to be getting worse. 

Can allergies cause a sore throat or make you cough?  

It’s a common misconception that a sore throat and cough signal something other than seasonal allergies. But in fact, these symptoms often go hand-in-hand with sniffling.  

“Allergies can absolutely cause a sore throat and a cough,” says Tracy Clark, MD. “When you’re exposed to allergens like pollen, dust or pet dander, your body can produce an immune response. This can lead to inflammation in your nasal passages and throat.The postnasal drip from this inflammation can irritate your throat, resulting in soreness, and the need to clear mucus can cause a cough.” 

In other words: Developing a sore throat in the peak of allergy season isn’t necessarily a red flag. But other symptoms, such as a fever and body aches, indicate that something else is going on.  

How to tell if you have allergies or a cold  

“Distinguishing between allergy symptoms and illnesses such as a cold, flu or COVID-19 can be tricky, but there are a few key differences to consider,” says Dr. Clark. “Allergy symptoms typically include itchy eyes, runny or congested nose and sneezing, but do not usually involve a fever. On the other hand, a cold or flu often presents with a fever, body aches and a general feeling of discomfort.”  

And of course, losing your sense of taste or smell may point to another culprit: COVID-19. “COVID-19 has a wider range of symptoms, including fever, cough, and loss of taste or smell, which are not typical of allergies,” Dr. Clark says. “If you are ever unsure, it is important to consult with a healthcare professional who can provide a proper diagnosis and treatment recommendations.”  (For more cold relief: Garlic and Honey Is the Savory-Sweet Duo That Calms a Sore Throat + Speeds Cold Recovery)

Seasonal allergies are getting worse 

If it feels like your allergies are getting worse each year, it’s not in your imagination. In fact, scientists have been predicting this scenario for years.  

“There are several reasons why allergies appear to be becoming more common and severe,” explains Shoshana Ungerleider, MD. “One significant factor is climate change, which is leading to longer growing seasons and higher levels of pollen production.” 

Allergenic tree species such as hickories and oaks, as well as other allergens like ragweed and grass, thrive off longer, warmer growing seasons and increased carbon dioxide in the air. Even living somewhere with relatively little vegetation, such as a city, doesn’t help.  

“Living in a city or urban area can make allergies worse,” says Dr. Ungerleider. “Urban environments often have higher levels of pollution, such as car exhaust and industrial emissions, which can exacerbate allergy symptoms.” 

But there’s an additional reason for worsening allergies, beyond global climate trends: Botanical sexism.  

What is botanical sexism?  

Walk around a city in the height of summer and you’re likely to see oaks, maples, cherry trees and plum trees, all chock-full of lush green foliage. One thing you won’t see? Fruit. That’s because only female trees can produce fruit – and the trees in urban areas are almost always male.  

“Urban areas tend to plant more male trees because they don’t produce fruit or seeds, and therefore make less of a mess,” explains Dr. Clark. “However, male trees release pollen, contributing to higher allergen levels in the air.”  

That’s right: The preference given to male plants over female plants is a major reason for your relentless sneezing and sniffling each fall. The high concentration of pollen drifting through the air, mixed with air pollution and longer allergy seasons, makes for a perfect storm for allergy sufferers.  

But there’s no need to suffer much longer. There are many treatment options for seasonal allergies, from nasal sprays and other over-the-counter meds to lifestyle changes. 

3 ways to ease allergies that cause a sore throat  

Dealing with allergies every year (or even multiple times per year!) is frustrating. And the longer you go without treatment, the more overwhelming symptoms become.  

“When you inhale an allergen, your immune system has an immediate reaction, including histamine release that can lead to symptoms like congestion, runny nose, and sneezing,” says Patricia Pinto-Garcia, MD, MPH. “But if you have ongoing exposure to that allergen, the immune system continues to react, which leads to inflammation and potentially worsening symptoms.” 

It’s clear that treating your symptoms as quickly and early as possible is essential for making it through allergy season. But which treatment is the best at treating allergies — the root cause of your sore throat?  

1. Over-the-counter treatments 

Nasal spray

“Nasal steroids like fluticasone propionate (Flonase) are often the first choice among experts for treating and preventing allergies,” explains Dr. Pinto-Garcia. “Antihistamine nasal sprays are another excellent option, and are just as effective as nasal steroids.” 

Nasal steroids and sprays are super effective at cutting inflammation and clearing out your sinuses, but they typically need at least a few days to begin working. If you’re in need of a quicker fix, consider opting for something like Zyrtec or Claritin instead. 

“Oral antihistamines can also be helpful,” says Dr. Pinto-Garcia. “While they may be slightly less effective than nasal steroids, they have the benefit of working much quicker.” 

2. Immunotherapy 

If over-the-counter options don’t help, your doctor may recommend immunotherapy, also known as allergy shots. “For those with severe allergies, seeing a specialist for allergy shots may offer long-term relief,” says Dr. Clark. 

Immunotherapy involves repeated exposure to incremental amounts of allergen. Over time, your body learns to stop treating the allergen like an invader, and has a much more subdued reaction.  

3. Lifestyle changes 

And finally, you can try the most effective option of all: Avoiding allergens in the first place.  

“The best thing you can do is try to avoid the allergen altogether,” Dr. Pinto-Garcia confirms. “If pollen is a trigger for you, check the pollen count before opting to work in the garden or go for a run outside. If going outside is unavoidable, wearing a hat, face mask and wrap-around sunglasses can help reduce the amount of pollen that sticks to your hair and gets into your mouth, nose and eyes.” 

Showering immediately after being outside, closing your windows, and investing in a quality air purifier can also all help reduce the pollen count inside your home and make you much less miserable. Allergies or not, you deserve to be comfortable – and a little extra effort can go a long way towards letting you breathe clearly again.  

For more allergy relief:

These Teas Ease Allergies Naturally + the Timing Trick That Boosts the Benefit

Is Your Cold Actually Allergies? MD Reveals the #1 Symptom That’s a Dead Giveaway

Feel Tired and Blue — And Don’t Know Why? Doctors Say Your Allergies May Be to Blame

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

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