It’s springtime, which means your allergies may already be causing a runny nose, watery eyes, sneezing and coughing. You’re not alone though; allergies affect around 36 million Americans. They aren't just an annoyance, many doctors believe there is a connection between allergies and mood.
For some, seasonal allergies do more than just cause crankiness. A study from The American Journal of Epidemiology showed that those who suffer from allergies are nearly 50% more likely to experience depression. If you've visited an allergist that likelihood almost triples, according to Dr. Paul Marshall, neuropsychologist at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis. These connections don't necessarily mean that allergies directly cause clinical depression, but there is a correlation.
Allergy-related mood changes are usually characterized by symptoms like sadness, lethargy and fatigue. Allergies could aggravate these symptoms in a person with clinical depression.
"It's important for people to understand that experiencing allergies can affect their mood," Dr. Marshall said.
This doesn’t mean all people with allergies have depression or that people with depression have allergies, but experiencing allergic reactions does seem to be a risk factor for developing depression. It doesn’t necessarily trigger the emotional side of the condition, but rather the physiological symptoms, such as low energy.
What is Your Biological Response?
During an allergic reaction, your body’s immune system responds by releasing cytokines, which are protein molecules used in communication between cells. The cytokines signal the brain and induce feelings of sickness that might often accompany the flu.
A 2002 study from Psychosomatic Medicine, led by Dr. Marshall, found that allergic reactions to ragweed pollen caused "significant fatigue and mood changes" in at least some patients. Research that Dr. Marshall collaborated on in 2000 also found that such reactions could cause slowed speed of cognitive processing.
Dr. Teodor Postolache at the University of Maryland led a review published in 2008 on the association between suicidal indicators and allergies. Dr. Postolache's group noted a peak in suicide rates from April to June, during which the environment changes dramatically due to pollen. The researchers found correlations between depression measurements and allergy symptoms in relation to the seasonal severity of tree pollen.
Depression or a Side Effect?
Low moods during allergy season may be situational and the result of sneezing or side effects from medication. Studies show that people don't perform as well at school and work because of allergic reactions, says Allergist Dr. Robert Overholt. These problems could exacerbate depressive symptoms, and when combined with sleep disturbance, could make people feel unwell. Dr. Overholt doesn't believe allergic response triggers depression, but says it could make existing depression worse.
"It would jump onto depression, but wouldn't be the cause," he said.
Antihistamines can also contribute to sleep disturbances and grogginess, while side effects of allergy medications can contribute to irregular sleep patterns and increase irritability. Over-the-counter antihistamines like Allegra, Claritin and Zyrtec only help with sneezing, unless specified as the "decongestant" form. But beware: the added decongestant benefits come with a price. The same chemicals that treat sore throat could lead to insomnia, put stress on the heart and contribute to prostate problems in some men.
Clinical psychologist, Erik Fisher sees more people who experience fatigue during allergy season, but isn't flooded with patients with allergy-influenced depression. He does, however, notice that allergies wear patients down.
"Once you realize what's causing your moods, it helps people feel less stressed out," Dr. Fisher said.
Children are particularly susceptible to mood swings and behaviors related to seasonal allergies because their bodies are more sensitive. In some kids, when allergies overwhelm the system, they have more temper tantrums and a harder time falling asleep.
But, people shouldn't attribute their allergies to deeper emotional issues, says Dr. Michael Silverman, assistant professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. Even if some patients have a direct mood response from allergies, it's not necessarily the best explanation for depression.
What Treatment is Best for You?
There are many types of medications available to treat seasonal allergy symptoms, including pills, liquids, inhalers, nasal sprays, eye drops, skin creams and shots. Most allergy medicines work by regulating the body's response to the allergen, either by blocking histamine—a chemical released by the immune system during an allergic reaction–or by reducing inflammation through the use of steroids, according to Family Doctor.
Some medications are combined with a decongestant to relieve nasal and sinus congestion. Many who suffer from allergies also find relief in natural remedies for allergies such as the neti pot. The only way to get more complete, prolonged relief from allergies is to undergo desensitization or "allergy shots," according to Dr. Overholt. After an initial test to see what specific allergens affect a patient, a doctor may administer small doses of the offending pollen or other substance under the skin over the course of three to five years. At the end of that time, protection from allergies lasts another three to five years on average, with some people coming out allergy-free for life and others getting relief for a year or two.
The Genecept Assay® may help individuals seeking relief from allergy-related depression. It is a genetic test created to assist clinicians in optimizing treatment decisions for patients with a mental illness. Speak with your clinician about whether the test is right for you and review our cost, billing, and insurance coverage page. If you’re not quite ready to discuss your mental health treatment with a healthcare professional, use these resources for immediate support and assistance.