Allergy nightmare scenarios: 5 things that could go wrong

Tempted to ignore your spring allergies? Don't. Here are 5 things that could go wrong if you do.
Tempted to ignore your spring allergies? Don't. Here are 5 things that could go wrong if you do.

Experts say that spring allergies can lead to a lot more than itchy eyes and a runny nose if they go untreated.

Dr. Ryan Steele, an allergist and immunologist at Yale tells Yahoo Life, “the longer you ignore symptoms, the more potential there is for needing more intensive medication or medical interventions.”

I found out the hard way that not treating allergies can lead to complications. When I moved to Washington, D.C., for college, I started having some mild swelling and generally not feeling well. I dragged myself to class and hoped things would get better. Instead, my symptoms got worse. My eyelids turned red and started swelling almost to the point of being completely closed. Then I started feeling itchiness and tightness in my throat.

At that point I knew something was seriously wrong so I went to the campus doctor, who diagnosed me with seasonal allergies. She prescribed medication that helped me feel better right away, but suggested that I see an allergist to develop a long-term treatment plan.

The author, Jaime Davis-Smith, ignored her seasonal allergies after moving to Washington D.C. That's something she says she'll never do again. (Photo: Jamie Davis-Smith)
The author, Jaime Davis-Smith, ignored her seasonal allergy symptoms after moving to Washington D.C. That's something she says she'll never do again. (Photo: Jamie Davis-Smith)

“Environmental allergies are very common with up to 40% of U.S. adults suffering from this chronic condition,” Dr. Shyam Joshi, an allergist and assistant professor of medicine at Oregon Health and Science University, tells Yahoo Life.

My allergist urged me to pay close attention to my symptoms and to take an over-the-counter antihistamine. I went to the drug store promptly to stock up and have not experienced any serious allergy symptoms since. I am not alone in having needlessly suffered from untreated seasonal allergies.

“Ignoring a train coming down the tracks is not wise,” Dr. Jacqueline Eghrari-Sabet, an allergist and immunologist at the Kauffman Allergy and Immunology Center in Virginia, tells Yahoo Life.“You hear the rumble, you hear the train whistle, you should move away from the tracks. Ignoring early symptoms is not wise.”

Here are five key takeaways from top allergists about what can happen if you don’t treat your spring allergies.

1. Your allergic reactions could get worse

Although some wait to see if their seasonal or environmental allergies will get better or disappear, but often the opposite happens. Allergies “typically do not go away on their own and can worsen with age,” says Dr. Christina Johns, a pediatrician who is certified in emergency medicine and serves as a medical adviser at PM Pediatric Care, where she treats a large number of allergy patients.

Johns warns that it’s important to be on the lookout for signs of an allergic reaction because allergies are unpredictable. “Their effect depends on the severity of a person’s allergy, the amount of exposure and other factors,” she says. That means that ignoring allergy symptoms and continuing to be exposed to the trigger can make the reaction progressively worse each time a person is exposed.

Johns explains that many emergency room and urgent care doctors like herself routinely treat seasonal allergies on a consistent basis because that’s where patients wind up when their allergies are not well controlled and they have an unexpected reaction.

“Symptoms can quickly get worse within hours to days” making them harder to treat and requiring stronger medications, allergist Dr. Neeta Ogden tells Yahoo Life. As a result, she recommends taking a second-generation antihistamine right after the first signs of an allergic reaction strike.

2. Your quality of life could decrease

Some people live with allergies for years and ignore them despite their symptoms “leading to a notable decline in quality of life,” says Joshi. He says that patients with untreated allergies frequently suffer from poor sleep, decreased social interaction and increased anxiety and depression. “Multiple studies have also shown that patients who suffer from moderate to severe [allergies] have reduced productivity at work and school as well as an increase in absenteeism,” Joshi explains.

3. There is a risk of medical complications

Experts say about 30 percent of patients who don't address allergy symptoms could develop asthma.
Experts say about 30% of patients who don't address allergy symptoms could develop asthma.

Untreated environmental allergies can also lead to medical complications. According to Dr. Roberto Garcia-Ibáñez, a board certified allergist with the Allergi Group, “roughly 30% of patients with allergy symptoms will develop asthma due to delayed treatment.”

Moreover, if environmental allergies are not controlled they can lead to sinus and ear infections, Joshi says. He adds that “if allergies are a trigger for asthma, long-term inflammation can lead to permanent changes in the airway."

Untreated allergies can also cause increased severity of other diseases. Eghrari-Sabet says that if someone develops a case of hay fever from allergies and ignores it, they are much more likely to develop “more significant symptoms of sinus congestion, headache and loss of sense of smell and taste.” At that point, an allergy sufferer may need more treatment with antibiotics and decongestants, she says. Worst-case scenario, doctors warn that chronic infections could require surgery. That would not have been necessary if they “would have only managed their first problem of [allergies],”says Eghrari-Sabet.

4. Your allergies could progress from seasonal to year-long suffering

Garcia-Ibáñez says he has seen many patients whose allergy symptoms began with a distinct seasonal pattern evolve into an annual pattern if left untreated. This is especially the case in areas with high humidity that lead to a “high prevalence of indoor allergens, such as dust mites and cockroaches,” Garcia-Ibáñez explains.

However, Joshi says that seasonal allergies can turn into year-round allergies in any climate. He tells Yahoo Life that those who suffer from seasonal allergies are much more likely to develop allergies that cause nonseasonal symptoms, including allergies to cats, dogs, dust mites, feathers and mold.

5. You could experience anaphylaxis

Anaphylaxis is a rare but serious and potentially life-threatening reaction that can occur after exposure to environmental allergens. Eghrari-Sabet explains that anaphylaxis is a continuum in which mild symptoms can progress to severe symptoms,” but she says that it’s difficult to tell when a patient will progress from hives on skin, to throat swelling and an inability to breathe.

So how should you treat your spring allergies? Joshi recommends over-the-counter medications with intranasal steroids or antihistamine tablets for itchy eyes and runny notes. He also says it's worth exploring immunotherapy, which he says can reduce the risk of developing additional allergic triggers.