All Stuffed Up from Pollen Allergies

in Features, Outdoor Allergies, Tree Pollen
Diagram showing pollen allergy symptoms.
Photo: Getty

The pollen’s out and once again you’re congested and bleary-headed. Do you get a few pollen allergy symptoms, or the whole enchilada?


Pollen allergy causes fluid to build up in the sinuses, putting pressure on the nerves in the area. This can lead to a headache directly above the eyes. The pain is different for each person, and can come on suddenly or gradually.


Fluid in the sinuses puts pressure on the brain, sometimes resulting in fatigue, says Dr. Paul Ehrlich, a pediatric allergist based in New York. Other reasons for daytime fatigue? A lack of nighttime sleep, caused either by your congested nose which makes it difficult to breathe or a decongestant medication containing pseudoephedrine, which is a stimulant and can keep you awake. Some antihistamines have a sedative effect and can make you feel tired during the day. Finally, pollen allergy sufferers can become overtired from constantly fighting the body-wide reaction.


Usually caused by that lack of sleep, irritability is an under-recognized but very real symptom of hay fever, says Vancouver allergist Dr. Donald Stark. Another cause: times of high stress often coincide with the different pollen allergy seasons – and the convergence of the two would make anyone grouchy. For example, students’ final exams in June are at the height of grass pollen allergy season, and back to school in September coincides with the start of ragweed season.

Pollen Allergy & Eyes

Watery, itchy and red eyes are the norm for those with pollen allergy. But some patients experience such severe conjunctivitis that fluid builds up in their eyes, making them swell and bulge. Others live with chronic vernal or spring conjunctivitis, which causes burning and itchy eyes, as well as bumps on the eyelids that feel like tiny pin pricks.

Runny Nose

Most pollen allergy suffers will experience rhinitis – the technical term for a runny or stuffed up nose. It may be commonplace, but Ehrlich cautions against ignoring it – especially if you have asthma. Clear noses do a better job of filtering pollens, reducing the chance the grains will make it into the lungs and cause respiratory troubles such as infections and bronchitis.

Plugged Ears

During an allergic reaction, mast cells in the body release histamine, which produces mucus that can build up in the ears. The result: relentless itchiness and a “clogged” or “full” feeling that just won’t let up.

Cheek Pain

Most of us wouldn’t associate pain in the cheeks with pollen allergy, but it happens. Since there are sinuses behind the upper cheeks, pressure in the sinuses can lead to cheek pain.

Pollen Allergy Cough

Coughing is the body’s way of clearing the airways from things that don’t belong there – such as allergens. Hay fever can also cause shortness of breath, as mucus builds up in the lungs and the airway muscles flex, known as bronchospasm.


Some people end up with an itchy rash from touching pollen. It’s uncommon, though, since mast cells – which release histamine when they come in contact with pollen and cause allergic reactions – are well underneath the skin, not on its surface.


Dr. Paul Ehrlich is a pediatric allergist in New York and the author of Asthma Allergies Children: A Parent’s Guide. Dr. Donald Stark is an allergist and professor at the University of British Columbia.