Here’s How To Tell What’s REALLY Causing Your Seasonal Allergies

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The buds are out, the bees are buzzing, and you're sneezing and wheezing like a champion. However, it may not actually be hay fever that's afflicting you. Hay fever is part of a group of conditions that fall under the heading of allergic rhinitis, an inflammation of the tissues inside the nose in response to various allergens. Hay fever itself responds to pollen, which is airborne and can make its way into indoor spaces as well as hanging out around in parks and gardens. Allergic rhinitis can, however, also be sparked by other allergens — including dust mites, which, for some people, produce some very similar symptoms. So, while dust can't quite cause hay fever, it can cause allergic symptoms. Here's how to tell the difference between seasonal allergies and a dust mite allergy, so you can figure out how best to treat it.

Interestingly, rates of rhinitis have been climbing in the last century, not only in young people (who are often the most vulnerable) but in people in their 30s and older. It's thought that this may be because we're becoming more hygienic as a society; as people have less exposure to allergens in their environment, their immune systems never learn how to register them as safe, causing an allergic reaction. But that's only a theory, and either way, the streaming eyes and sinus misery of rhinitis is pretty unpleasant no matter what the cause. Here's how to tell whether you've got a dust mite issue or a pollen allergy.

The Seasonality Of Your Symptoms

The big one: hay fever is classified as seasonal, so it only shows its symptoms strongly in periods when the allergens are thickly present, as in the spring when all that lovely blossom is sending its pollen everywhere. Dust mite allergies, meanwhile, are perennial. Symptoms happen year-round, because the dust mites don't take a vacation.

If you don't know what dust mites are or why they're in your environment, here's your primer: Dust mites are tiny bugs that live happily among the dust and detritus of everyday areas like houses and workplaces. They only measure up to a third of a millimeter long, and live on dust and skin flakes, which means they're particularly happy in bedding, pillows, toys and soft furnishings. Don't freak out about this. There's nothing inherently threatening about them, but we do often breathe in their waste, and in people with dust mite allergies, that can irritate the sensitive internal mucosal surface of the nostrils and cause sneezing, itchy eyes and other typical rhinitis symptoms.

2.What Time They Show Up
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It's most common for a dust mite allergy to be worse in the morning and at night, because that's when you spend most of your contact time with dust mites: they're exceptionally fond of mattresses, bedding, and pillows. So dust mite allergy symptoms will show up around sleeping times and any period you've been resting or spending a lot of time on soft furnishings. Hay fever symptoms, meanwhile, tend to be worst when wind is high (meaning more pollen) and when pollens counts are at their peak, which generally hits around mid-morning and late afternoon. If, however, you have a house which is open to the elements or a bedroom where pollen can turn up, this might not be a reliable guide, because pollen in your bedding can also set off hay fever. Keep a symptom diary of what times your allergies are at their worst — this can help locate the source of the issue.

What Your Cleaning Schedule Is Like

Somewhat ironically, cleaning inside the house will actually make dust mite allergies worse in the short term. Dusting, vacuuming, sweeping and other activities designed to rid your environment of dust will actually temporarily send clouds of dust mite products into the air, prompting sneezing fits and other issues. The problem will be worse if you live in an enclosed environment with your windows closed (which is what many people who believe they have hay fever do in pollen season). If you're in another person's dusty house, particularly while they're cleaning, the symptoms will worsen then, too. The solution? Take protective measures when you clean, such as wearing an air mask, and clean often enough that dust mites don't become an issue.

What Happens In Fresh Air
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Letting the air into your bedroom or sleeping space can go one of two ways. If you have hay fever, it allows pollens and other allergens in and will likely make symptoms worse. But if you have dust mite allergies, the fresh air will help dispel dust mite waste and relieve your issues slightly. It's not a conclusive test, but if you're not sure about your hay fever diagnosis a bit of time in fresh air may be a good way to see if you're reacting to indoor or outdoor allergens.

Testing By Your Doctor
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Ultimately, the clearest way to ascertain whether or not you have a dust mite allergy or are reacting to seasonal pollen is to have an allergy test. Testing for allergies can involve pricking the skin and exposing it to potential allergens to see if an immune system reaction happens, which is the most common way. In the case of rhinitis, some people will also be given a "nasal provocation" test, where a nasal spray of the potential allergen is put in your nose and your reaction is assessed.

Luckily, these days antihistamines and other medications are pretty helpful when it comes to keeping allergies in check — but even if you've been calling your spring sneezes hay fever for years, if you've noticed the symptoms don't line up it's worth getting tested.