A woman winding up to sneeze into a tissue, surrounded by flowers and petals and pollen.

What Are the Symptoms of Environmental Allergies?

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last updated: August 2022

Symptoms of environmental allergies may be easily confused with a cold and other respiratory illnesses. Knowing these allergy symptoms can help you find the right diagnosis and treatment, and make your life more comfortable.

People can be allergic to almost anything in their surroundings. The most common environmental allergies include:1,2

  • Dust
  • Mold
  • Pollen
  • Grasses and trees
  • Animals (cats, dogs, horses)
  • Household insects (dust mites, cockroaches)

A person with environmental allergies may also be sensitive to:1,2

  • Smoke, fumes, vehicle exhaust
  • Strong smells from perfume, hair spray, fumes, air fresheners
  • Cleaning products and pool chlorine
  • Air pollution (ozone)

Allergy symptoms are not just a nuisance. Yes, allergic reactions to environmental triggers can be mild. But they can also be a serious health issue that impacts quality of life.

Most common symptoms

An allergen is something a person has an allergic reaction to. Environmental allergens can be indoors or outdoors. While this large group of allergens is diverse, all trigger similar symptoms, including:3-5

  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Itchy nose, eyes, ears, and mouth
  • Nasal congestion
  • Red or watery eyes
  • Swelling around the eyes
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Rash

In some people with asthma, environmental allergies can cause an asthma attack or make asthma symptoms worse. This is called allergic asthma.6

Is it a cold or allergies?

A cold is caused by a virus, while allergies are caused by the immune system’s overreaction to an allergen. However, a cold and allergies share many symptoms. This can make it hard to tell what is causing your symptoms. Here are some ways to tell if you have a cold or allergies:7

  • Cold symptoms do not get better when you take antihistamines, while allergy symptoms usually do.
  • Allergies generally do not cause aches and pains or fever. Colds sometimes do.
  • A cough is more likely to be caused by a cold than an allergy.
  • Symptoms that occur at the same time every year are more likely to be caused by allergies than a cold.
  • Red, itchy eyes are more common with allergies than a cold.

When to see a doctor

If you have allergy symptoms that do not go away within a few days or happen at certain times of the year, you may want to see an allergist. These doctors are specialists in diagnosing, managing, and treating allergies.8

Signs that your symptoms are more severe and require the support of an allergist include:8

  • Over-the-counter drugs do not control your symptoms
  • Your symptoms interfere with school, work, and social activities
  • You often feel out of breath
  • You have sinus infections and nasal congestion often

If you are diagnosed with an environmental allergy, they will be able to guide you on how to avoid your triggers and effectively treat your symptoms.

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