How Allergies Affect Skin—and What You Can Do to Deal

You don’t have to stay miserable.

Young woman lying in field of wildflowers, overhead portrait, Jalama, California, USA
Photo: Peter Amend/Getty Images

With seasonal changes just around the corner, you may have noticed you suddenly have lots of red, dry patches of skin, or wake up looking puffier than usual. That's your irritated complexion talking—and seasonal allergies are probably to blame. In addition to excessive sneezing and runny noses, a dip in temperature and increase in pollen can wreak havoc on your skin. We talked to the experts about seasonal allergies and how to treat allergy-induced skin irritation so you have one less worry when allergy season rolls around.

What Is an Allergy?

An allergy is our body's response to a foreign substance within the environment (i.e. pet dander, dust mites, and pollen) that is harmless to most other people. "Your immune system reacts to these substances, or allergens, by producing antibodies, which are actually proteins that trigger cells to fight the foreign substance. The cells then release histamine, which can cause inflammation in your sinuses, airways, digestive system, and your skin," explains cosmetic nurse Kristina Kitsos. According to Purvi Parikh, MD, adult and pediatric allergist and immunologist with Allergy & Asthma Network, about 50 million people suffer from seasonal allergies and will see their skin barrier function impacted—from eczema and hives to a noticeably puffy, inflamed, red complexion.

How Does the Skin React to Allergies?

Allergic dermatitis, or unexplained red, itchy skin, occurs when your skin is exposed to an allergen. "This is called a type IV, delayed-type reaction and often doesn't occur with the first exposure to the allergen but rather with repeat exposure," says Whitney Tolpinrud, MD, board-certified dermatologist. "The immune system produces an inflammatory reaction and releases histamine, which causes blood to rush to your skin and results in symptoms like redness, blistering, swelling, hives, and itching."

How to Manage Skin Irritation from Allergies

As with any allergy, the best way to avoid it is to avoid the allergen. "If you know a certain fragrance triggers reactions, switch to fragrance and dye-free products. If it's a specific dust mite or outdoor pollen, limit your time spent in those areas," says Dr. Goldstein.

If avoidance isn't possible, that's when reparative skincare comes into play. In addition to topical steroid creams (i.e. hydrocortisone) for the itch, Dr. Tolpinrud recommends a simple skincare routine of washing with plain water and restoring your skin barrier with gentle cleansers, hydrating ceramides, and emollient creams—remember, the goal is to repair the barrier. "On especially irritated areas like the eyelids, apply a thin layer of plain Vaseline at night," she says. Avoid anything with essential oils or fragrances, which can further irritate the skin.

Kitsos adds that if you're experiencing skin irritation caused by allergies, you should pause on using products with retinoids and acids, like AHAs and BHAs, which could cause further redness, tightness, and inflammation.

The best way to stop the spread of an allergy-induced skincare breakout is to avoid itching at all costs. "The skin protects our bodies from environmental factors while simultaneously retaining moisture and keeping us hydrated, so when you're scratching continuously, it results in damage to the skin barrier and allows bacteria and other pathogens to enter and cause potential infection," says Dr.Tolpinrud. For intense redness and itching, apply a cool compress on the affected area to soothe symptoms.

And if at-home remedies aren't cutting it, consider scheduling a visit with your doctor for an allergy patch test to determine if you need a prescription or immunotherapy allergy shots.

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