Just when summer is bursting upon us, now we have some rather distressing news for seasonal allergy sufferers: you might need to sit this one out.

A new study published in the July 2014 edition of Allergy, the European Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology finds that allergic rhinitis is a risk factor for traffic safety.

That’s a mouthful. What does it mean? Here we attempt to make sense of what can seem too complicated. Bottom line: can we drive or do we have to be passengers? Let’s find out.

Common Seasonal Allergy Symptoms – and What This Means for Drivers

For those of us plagued by seasonal allergies, often called by its more popular name of hay fever, we know the symptoms. These commonly include watery eyes, incessant sneezing and an overall feeling of tiredness. We often feel sapped, drained, but we still have to make it to work and to perform everyday errands that necessitate our getting out on the roads and driving.

The study results, however, are anything but comforting in this regard, finding that the symptoms’ effect on our driving ability is comparable to having a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level that’s uncomfortably close to driving impaired.

Even more troubling is the researchers’ notation that allergy medications are not completely effective in reducing the effect of seasonal allergy symptoms.

Researchers said that they began the study because of the fact that hay fever has been linked to car accidents in the past, but the effect on drivers’ performance weren’t known.

About the Study

Conducted in the Netherlands, the study involved a small sample of 19 people who were in their early 30s, suffering from grass- and tree-pollen allergies. They were tested during the off-season when they were free of symptoms.

At that time, they were treated, in turn, with an antihistamine, a steroid nasal spray, or a placebo pill or spray during four testing sessions occurring over separate days. After the treatments, study participants were given tree or grass allergens or a placebo via nasal spray intended to provoke their allergy symptoms.

The participants then did a one-hour driving test in a vehicle that had a camera inside recording how often they veered toward the center lane of the road. The technique, called standard deviation of lateral position (SDLP), is often used to assess drunken driving. The higher the score for SDLP, the greater the drivers’ impairment.

It is important to note that the driving conditions were “easy,” with no cell phone, radio or bad weather distractions.

In the last 15 minutes of the driving test, study participants were given verbal memory tests and asked to recall as many words as possible from a list they heard through the car’s audio system.

Study Results

What this test revealed is that allergy sufferers who had received a placebo had the greatest impairment: SLDP scores for the group comparable to driving with a BAC of 0.03 percent. This is just under the 0.05 percent legal limit in most countries, although the U.S. BAC limit is 0.08 percent.

Antihistamine and nasal spray reduced to nonsignificant levels the SLDP scores.

As for the driving scores of allergy sufferers relative to memory tests, these plummeted significantly. Only nasal spray treatment improved SLDP scores. Researchers noted that the antihistamine’s effects were comparable to placebo treatment, possibly due to the mild sedative effects of the drug.

What’s the bottom line? The conclusion of researchers is that untreated hay fever (seasonal grass- or tree-pollen allergies) can impair driving and put drivers and others at risk. They recommend seasonal allergy suffers should always treat their condition.

Get out that nasal spray!

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