The Pitt Prescription | Springing into seasonal allergy treatments: the sequel

The Pitt Prescription is a biweekly blog where student pharmacist and senior staff writer Elizabeth Donnelly provides tips on how to stay healthy in college. This edition was reviewed by Karen Pater, PharmD., CDCES, BCACP.

By Elizabeth Donnelly, Senior Staff Writer

A previous edition of The Pitt Prescription published in March 2020 discussed allergic rhinitis — AKA seasonal allergies — and the recommended treatments for common symptoms. In light of the recent Pitt announcement which states masks will be optional starting March 28, now is a good time to revisit seasonal allergies and ways to alleviate associated symptoms.

Allergists have found that masks may actually help people who suffer from seasonal allergies because they filter out common allergens like pollen and prevent them from getting inside your nose. A study published in September 2020 evaluated nurses who previously experienced chronic seasonal allergies after mask rules were put into place due to COVID-19. This found that 40% of the nurses reported experiencing a significant decrease in sneezing, runny noses or stuffy noses while wearing masks.

Although masks are becoming increasingly optional across the United States, research supports their use to help reduce seasonal allergy symptoms in combination with pharmacological and desensitization treatment strategies. It is important to note that masks do not help with allergic symptoms occurring in your eyes, such as dryness or itchiness. For individuals whose allergies are mainly bothersome to the eyes, masks will not offer as much protection as they do for nasal and oral symptoms, such as sneezing or itchy throats. 

Spring allergy season often begins in late February and lasts until the early summer, meaning right now is a prime time for people to suffer from allergies. It may be difficult to differentiate between COVID-19 infection and other illnesses, like allergies, especially with numerous COVID-19 variants going around with different symptoms. You can utilize the comparison table below to determine if your symptoms are just allergies, or indicative of a different condition.

Over-the-counter treatments for seasonal allergies have remained, for the most part, the same since the last edition. Be sure to check it out for a more comprehensive medication guide to seasonal allergies. It’s important to treat allergy symptoms and not just try to power through them. This is because available research suggests individuals with untreated allergies suffer from impaired cognitive function, including issues with decision making, concentration and memory.

In addition to the staples of care, there have been some new OTC products that have come to market recently. Notably, Pataday Once Daily Relief Extra Strength (olopatadine 0.7%) eye drops became the first and only nonprescription 24-hour eye drop for allergic eye itchiness in the United States.

This product was previously only available with a prescription, but is now available OTC in community pharmacies. The label recommends using it once daily in the affected eyes by placing one drop in each eye. This medication is designed for individuals who suffer from eye allergies, which occur when allergens, such as pollen or mold spores, come into contact with the eye.

Additionally, the FDA recently approved Astepro (azelastine 0.15%) nasal spray to move from prescription to OTC status for adults and children six years and older. This spray is the first nasal antihistamine available OTC for seasonal allergies. Since this product contains an antihistamine, it may cause drowsiness. Users should avoid consuming alcoholic beverages because these could increase already present drowsiness, and users should also be careful when driving or operating machinery. The label recommends using it by administering two sprays per nostril twice daily, although for some people, once daily is enough.

As always, there are also many actions individuals can take to alleviate or avoid allergy symptoms without using medications. I’ve previously discussed actions using sites like to check pollen levels in your area, wearing sunglasses and hats outside, avoiding touching your face and keeping pets out of your bedroom while washing your sheets often. These techniques are still extremely applicable, but there are other practices that can further help with allergies.

There are multiple websites that can help determine the top allergens in your area. As I mentioned earlier, is a site that shows pollen levels, but it also shows the top allergens and current allergy report for whichever area you choose. It also has a forecast feature that shows the predicted allergen reports for the next five days. Currently the top allergens in Pittsburgh are juniper, elm and maple, so if you know you are allergic to any of these, it would be a good idea to avoid long periods outdoors, especially in the morning when allergens tend to be more present.

Additionally, if you suffer from allergies that mostly affect your nose or throat, continuing or starting to wear masks when outdoors is a great way to combat allergens from getting into your system. The type of mask you use matters, because not all masks are equal.

N95 masks filter the most — when worn correctly, they block at least 95% of small particles, including pollen and other allergens. Surgical masks are also fairly good at blocking small particles, but they have a looser seal than N95s, which means some air may come through gaps around the edges. Cloth masks vary in terms of effectiveness and are typically the least effective option. Experts recommend double masking with both cloth masks and surgical masks to bypass some of the gap issues.

Finally, many college students living in Oakland do not have their own washers and dryers. In the spring and summer, this means many people hang clothes, rugs and other fabric items outside to dry. Hanging clothes to dry outside runs the risk of contaminating them with allergens, which then allows these allergens to get into your home and aggravate your symptoms. If possible, avoid drying things outdoors or leaving household items outside for long periods so that you can lessen the chances of allergens entering your home. If outdoor drying is necessary, check local allergen levels online and try to plan around them.

Seasonal allergies are such a common ailment, especially in the springtime. With the warmer weather approaching and the loosened mask mandates, protecting yourself and knowing how to treat allergies is essential. There are several non-pharmaceutical methods in which you can avoid exposure to allergens, and there are a myriad of OTC products that are designed to safely alleviate allergy symptoms. If you have any questions or need guidance regarding these options, you can always ask your local pharmacist for help.

Elizabeth writes primarily about self-care and pharmacological topics. For questions, comments or concerns, you can reach her at [email protected].