7 Signs Your Seasonal Allergies Are Actually Something Worse

Cheek pain, green snot, and one-sided drip can be indications of something else.

May 30, 2017
woman with headache
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This time of year, when the temperature ticks up and the air is filled with pollen, it’s natural to assume your runny nose, watery eyes, or sinus pressure are reactions to seasonal allergens. But some symptoms people mistake for run-of-the-mill allergies could actually be signs of other health issues—some of them quite serious.

Especially if your allergy medications aren’t doing any good, and if you don’t notice the symptoms abating when you head indoors, you may want to reconsider your self-diagnoses, says Brett Comer, MD, a surgeon and assistant professor at the University of Kentucky. 

Paying close attention to your symptoms can help you tell if you’re dealing with something other than allergies. Here’s what to watch out for:

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runny nose
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Clear fluid dripping from one nostril

“If a person has clear drainage from their nose that tends to be only on one side, and tends to happen more when they lean their head forward, that could indicate a cerebral spinal fluid leak,” Comer says. 

He says there’s a thin plate that separates your sinuses from the parts of your brain where this cerebral spinal fluid flows. If a hole opens in that plate, the fluid can leak through. While the fluid drip in itself isn’t dangerous, the hole that accounts for it could lead to a life-threatening brain infection. 

“It’s not that common, but in my world as a rhinologist, I think I saw five cases just last month,” Comer says. “Some people come in and say they’ve had the dripping for more than a year and thought it was just allergies.”

Related: 3 Essential Oils That Can Ease Your Allergies

cheek pain
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Green snot and cheek pain

If you have cheek pain—especially if the pain is on one side, in the sinus areas below your eyes, and accompanied by green snot—that’s more likely an infection than some kind of allergy issue, Comer says. “The pain can also radiate up into the forehead and temple,” he says. “What’s happening is the maxillary sinus below your eye has become infected and blocked off.” (Here are 4 foods to avoid if you have spring allergies.)

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You recently started on a new medication

“Some medications can cause symptoms that mimic allergies,” says Janna Tuck, MD, a spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. “Heart medications, and beta blockers in particular, can cause pretty serious congestion.” She adds that birth control pills—as well as pregnancy—can cause nasal symptoms some might mistake for allergies. 

Related: 7 Natural Home Remedies For Spring Allergies

woman smelling apple
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Losing your sense of taste and smell

Allergy-related congestion usually won’t lead to loss of taste and smell. “If you’re experiencing that, it may be related to something structural like nasal polyps, which are small non-cancerous growths,” says Sana Hasan, MD, an assistant professor of immunology, allergy, and rheumatology at Baylor College of Medicine. Apart from killing your sense of taste or smell, those polyps can cause congestion, and in some cases require surgery to remove, she says. 

Another structural issue that can cause congestion is a deviated septum, or a misalignment of the bone and cartilage that separates your nostrils, Hasan says.  

woman with pain in face
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Pain or pressure in your face

Another condition that can cause cheek pain and discolored snot is something called allergic fungal sinusitis. “It’s a fungal buildup in the sinuses,” Comer explains. “It can seem like an infection, but it’s from fungal particles getting into the sinuses where they can cause inflammation, which traps in more fungus, which promotes more inflammation—it’s a vicious cycle.” He says this condition is common in the South and places that are hot and humid all year. “You need surgery to clear out all that fungus and debris,” he adds. (Watch out for these 10 foods that make inflammation worse.)

hives on arms
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Chronic hives

“People come in with chronic hives and think it’s due to allergies,” says Princess Ogbogu, MD, of Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center. “But usually if the hives last for more than six weeks, that’s not from anything external like an allergy.” She says chronic hives are more likely to do with your thyroid or some kind of immune system issue. See your physician. 

Related: What's That Rash On Your Body?

woman with headache
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Yes, allergies can lead to sinus pressure-related headaches. But if a bad headache comes on very suddenly, and especially if it’s severe enough to wake you up at night or cause nausea, you’ll want to let your doctor know about it, says Isha Gupta, MD, a neurologist with IGEA Brain and Spine. She mentions a tumor, stroke, or even an aneurism as potential causes of a sudden and horrible headache. (Here are 7 signs your headache isn't normal.)