If you sailed through spring allergy season without the slightest sniffle, you may have thought you were in the clear. Then suddenly it’s peak summer and you’re hit with sneezing attacks, coughing fits and a runny nose. You might be wondering if you’ve come down with something. But these cold-like symptoms may not be an illness. They could be a sign of hay fever.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 19 million adults and 5 million children in the U.S. struggle with hay fever each year. It’s an allergic reaction to pollen in the air that you breathe in. Spring and early summer bring out grass and tree pollens, while ragweed and mold spores can be particularly potent offenders in late summer and fall. Symptoms can include:

  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Itching in your eyes, nose or mouth
  • Runny and stuffy nose
  • Headaches
  • Watery and red eyes

Hay fever doesn’t actually cause fevers. But it can leave you more tired than usual, impact your favorite outdoor activities and even affect the quality of your sleep, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.

Hay fever is difficult to prevent, and it can be a chronic problem. But there are ways to alleviate symptoms. One of the first steps is to avoid triggers as best you can. This can include keeping your windows closed during high-pollen seasons, wearing sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat to reduce the amount of pollen getting into your eyes, and showering before bed to wash off allergens.

There are medicines that can help, too. You’re probably familiar with Benadryl® (diphenhydramine). But it isn’t your only option these days. You also don’t have to shell out tons of money to keep allergies in check.

For the latest and greatest seasonal allergy treatments, we turned to Barbara Young, PharmD. She’s a clinical pharmacist who works as an editor for the patient medication information database at the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists. And don’t forget: If you need medication to ease your symptoms, the Optum Perks app can help you find the best deals near you.

Q: What are antihistamines?

Young: When your body senses an irritant such as pollen, it can overreact by releasing a chemical called histamine. Histamine is part of your body’s defense system. It’s what causes your body to react and produce allergy symptoms, as it takes action against an allergen. In other words, it helps you remove invaders. So in the case of hay fever, histamine prompts your body to produce a lot of mucus to “wash” away the pollen. That’s why you may cough, sneeze or get a runny nose. It can also make your eyes itch.

Antihistamines are a class of medications that work to block histamine’s effects. These products work fairly rapidly (within a few hours) to ease symptoms such as sneezing and itchy eyes. You can take them daily as a preventative or on an as-needed basis, such as when you’re having an allergic reaction.

Q: What about side effects such as drowsiness?

Young: Many of the original antihistamines such as Benadryl® do cause drowsiness. They can reduce your reaction speed, making driving or operating machinery a hazard. Luckily, there are newer options that have a less sedative effect. Bonus: You don’t have to take them as frequently to get the benefits. Some are even once-a-day doses.

These newer over-the-counter (OTC) options include Claritin® (loratadine), Zyrtec® (cetirizine) and Allegra® (fexofenadine). Though they may say that they’re nondrowsy, know that they can still make some people a bit sleepy.

(Wondering how to choose the right OTC allergy med for you? Here’s how to decide.)

Q: Antihistamines don’t relieve my nasal congestion. What gives?

Young: Oral antihistamines may not be as effective for nasal congestion as other allergy medications. One effective option is an intranasal steroid. These nasal sprays greatly reduce congestion. They can also ease sneezing, a runny nose and itchy, watery eyes. Another benefit is that they do not cause drowsiness. Common OTC options include Flonase® Allergy Relief (fluticasone) and Nasacort® (triamcinolone acetonide). Prescription-strength options include Nasonex® (mometasone) and Dymista® (azelastine hydrochloride).

The only downside is that it can take several days to see symptom improvement. And they must be used consistently to be effective. There are some risks, too. It’s important to spray them straight back, rather than into the middle of your nose. If used incorrectly, they are thought to contribute to septal perforation, or the creation of a hole in the tissue that separates your nose into 2 sides.

There are also some concerns that these nasal sprays may increase the risk of glaucoma and cataracts — 2 serious eye conditions. So be sure to talk to your doctor or pharmacist about what allergy medication is right for you.

Q: What can be done for serious (and relentless) seasonal allergies?

Young: If your symptoms aren’t improving with medication and are long-lasting or frequent, your doctor may recommend immunotherapy. This treatment exposes you to larger and larger doses of an allergen. While this may seem counterintuitive, the goal is to change how your immune system reacts to triggers such as pollen. In other words, it builds up your body’s tolerance and can reduce symptoms over time.

There are 2 kinds of immunotherapy: allergy shots and tablets. Each contains an extract of the allergen that’s causing your reaction. The first involves a series of injections over a period of years. The second is a newer, less common treatment for hay fever. Instead of an injection, you’ll dissolve a tablet under your tongue daily.

The Food and Drug Administration–approved products available at this time are only for dust mites, ragweed and certain grass pollens. So you would need to be tested by an allergist to determine which would be effective for you. Side effects of these tablets are usually mild and can include an upset stomach and mouth irritation.

No matter which prescription you rely on come allergy season, Optum Perks can help you save. Download our discount card and carry it to the pharmacy for discounts of up to 80% off.

Additional sources
Hay fever overview:
American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology
Stats on allergies and hay fever: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Nasal corticosteroids overview: Medline Plus
Sublingual immunotherapy overview: American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology