Hay fever is an allergic response to airborne allergens, such as pollen, dust mites or pet dander. It causes cold-like symptoms, but unlike a cold, it doesn’t simply run its course over a few days. The symptoms persist until the allergen is removed or the affected person receives treatment. Roughly 15-20 percent of the U.S. population suffers from some degree of hay fever.
While some people suffer hay fever symptoms all year long, the biggest concentration of hay fever occurs in the late spring and early summer. This time is known as “hay season” â€” hence the name. Ironically, hay is rarely an allergen that causes hay fever, and no actual fever is involved.
Hay Fever Symptoms
Hay fever symptoms develop immediately after exposure to an allergen. Symptoms resemble the common cold and include:
- itching in the nose, throat, ear canal, eyes or skin
- postnasal drip
- runny nose
- sensation of plugged ears
- trouble sleeping
- watery eyes.
If you’re experiencing these symptoms, how can you tell if it’s actually hay fever and not just a common cold? A few subtle differences exist between the two. First of all, if you’re running a fever, then it’s a cold. Hay fever is not a virus and will not cause a fever. Secondly, although a runny nose is a common symptom of both the common cold and hay fever, the nasal discharge is different. Hay fever produces a thin, clear nasal discharge, while nasal discharge from a cold is often thick and yellow in color.
Hay Fever Triggers
Hay fever occurs when your airways come into contact with an allergen. Common allergens include:
- dust mites
- pet dander
Normally, these allergens are harmless. However, the immune system mistakenly identifies the allergen as something harmful and starts producing antibodies. The antibodies then release histamines into your bloodstream, and the chemical reactions from these histamines cause the symptoms of hay fever.
Not everyone develops hay fever, and some people have it worse than others. People who meet the following criteria have a higher risk for developing hay fever:
- birth during pollen season
- exposure to cigarette smoke during the first year of life
- exposure to dust mites
- family history of allergies
Treating Hay Fever Symptoms
Most people are able to treat their hay fever symptoms with over-the-counter or prescription medications. In severe cases, your doctor may recommend allergy shots. Common medications for treating hay fever include:
- Antihistamines: As their name suggests, antihistamines stop your body from producing the histamines that cause the symptoms of hay fever. Mild antihistamines are available over the counter, but some people prefer prescription-strength antihistamines. They work very well to relieve itching, sneezing and runny noses, but they can cause drowsiness and don’t work as well for relieving congestion.
- Corticosteroid nasal sprays: These sprays are best used daily until hay fever symptoms disappear. They reduce congestion and nasal swelling without causing drowsiness.
- Decongestants: These are available orally or as eyedrops or nasal sprays. They temporarily relieve hay fever symptoms, but they can also potentially cause negative side effects, including high blood pressure, rapid heartbeat and irritability.
- Leukotriene inhibitors: Leukotriene is another chemical that produces the symptoms of hay fever. Leukotriene inhibitors are available as tablets, chewable tablets or granules, and they’re best used in combination with an antihistamine.
In addition to medical treatment, hay fever symptoms can be alleviated by making a few lifestyle changes. Wash your bed sheets weekly in hot water. Wash your hair at night before you go to bed. This will remove any pollen that may have settled in your hair during the day so you won’t inhale it at night. Dry your clothes indoors instead of outdoors, where they may collect pollen.
Stay inside during peak times for pollen exposure, and run your air conditioner rather than opening windows in your home or car. Clean your house often and check for mold in damp areas such as bathrooms. Finally, keep your pets out of your bedroom and off your furniture.
Mayo Clinic. (2008). Hay fever. Retrieved March 15, 2009, from the Mayo Clinic Web site http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/hay-fever/DS00174/DSECTION=alternative-medicine.
Stoppler, M.C. (2006). 10 ways to manage your hay fever symptoms. Retrieved March 15, 2009, from the Medicine Net Web site http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=60941.
Web MD (2009). Hay fever. Retrieved March 15, 2009, from the eMedicineHealth Web site http://www.emedicinehealth.com/hay_fever/article_em.htm#Hay Fever Overview.