Is it why you’re sneezing?
You’re visiting your grandmother in her suburban house, and she notices that you’re sneezing, have red eyes, and a runny nose. She says that you have hay fever. You tell her that’s not possible because you haven’t been around any hay. What is hay fever? How is it treated? Can you prevent it?
Hay fever, or allergic rhinitis, got its name in the 19th century from the idea that the smell of hay in the summer irritated the body. However, we’ve come to learn that this isn’t the case. Instead, it’s an allergic response to allergens that can be outdoors, like pollen, or indoors, such as dust mites or pet dander. When your body is exposed to these substances, it causes your immune system to produce antibodies that result in the release of histamine into your bloodstream, which leads to the symptoms.
Certain things can trigger it at specific times of the year. Tree pollen is high in early spring, whereas grass pollen is common in late spring/summer, and ragweed pollen occurs in the fall. Individuals who are sensitive to dust mites or pet dander may notice an increase in symptoms during winter when they spend more time inside.
Hay fever symptoms are runny nose, nasal congestion, watery/itchy/red eyes, sneezing, coughing, itchy nose/mouth/throat, postnasal drip, swollen/blue-colored skin under the eyes, and fatigue. These sound very similar cold symptoms, so how do you tell the difference? Well, with hay fever, you’ll have a runny nose with thin, watery discharge and no fever. Symptoms usually start immediately after exposure to allergens and last as long as you’re exposed. If you have the common cold, you’ll have a runny nose with watery or thick yellow discharge, body aches, and low-grade fever. Symptoms start one to three days after exposure to the virus and last three to seven days.
Some things can increase your chances of having hay fever, such as having other allergies, asthma, eczema, a blood relative with allergies/asthma, a mother who smoked during the first year of life, or living/working in an environment constantly exposing you to allergens. There are several complications of hay fever. One is a reduced quality of life because it interferes with your enjoyment of activities and leads to work or school absences. Other complications include poor sleep, worsening asthma, sinusitis, and ear infections.
The first step in treating hay fever is to avoid your trigger. For those who have problems with pollen or mold, close doors/windows during pollen season, don’t hang laundry outside, use air conditioning in your house/car, use an allergy-grade filter in your home ventilation system (change it regularly), avoid outdoor activity in the early morning (pollen counts are highest), stay indoors on dry/windy days, use a dehumidifier to reduce indoor humidity, use a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter in your bedroom and other rooms where you spend a lot of time, avoid mowing the lawn/raking leaves, and wear a dust mask when cleaning your house/gardening. If you have an issue with dust mites, use allergy-proof covers on mattresses/box springs/pillows, wash sheets/blankets in water heated to at least 130°F, use a dehumidifier/air conditioner to reduce indoor humidity, vacuum carpets weekly with a vacuum cleaner equipped with a small-particle or HEPA filter, spray insecticide designed to kill dust mites and approved for indoor use on carpets/furniture/bedding, and consider removing carpeting (if you’re highly sensitive to dust mites). If you’re sensitive to cockroaches, block cracks/crevices where roaches can enter, fix leaky faucets/pipes, wash dishes and empty garbage daily, sweep food crumbs from counters/floors, store food (including pet food) in sealed containers, and consider professional pest extermination. For those allergic to pet dander, keep pets out of your home, if possible, keep pets out of your bedroom and off furniture, and bathe dogs twice a week (the benefit of bathing cats hasn’t been proved).
If your hay fever isn’t severe, you can use over-the-counter medications to treat it. Just remember that not all of them are approved for use in children. Some options include nasal corticosteroids, antihistamines (can be pills, nasal sprays, or eye drops), decongestants (tablets or nasal sprays), and cromolyn sodium nasal spray. You can also try rinsing your sinuses with distilled, sterile water via squeeze bottle or neti pot. It’s vital only to use distilled, sterile water to prevent any bacteria from entering your sinuses. This means you should also clean the device with this as well. If these don’t work, your doctor can prescribe you a leukotriene modifier, nasal ipratropium, or oral corticosteroids. For those with severe hay fever, your doctor may recommend allergy shots or allergy tablets. With either of these, you gradually expose your body to increasingly larger amounts of your allergy in an effort to desensitize it.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a way to prevent hay fever. The goal is to lessen symptoms by reducing your exposure to the allergens that cause them. One way to do this is to take allergy medicine before you start experiencing symptoms. If you’re unsure of how to do this, your doctor can guide you.
Hay fever isn’t pleasant to deal with, but taking steps to reduce your symptoms, you’ll be back to your normal self in no time. If you have any questions or concerns about hay fever, please speak with your doctor. If you would like more information, please visit the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology’s Allergic Rhinitis page at https://acaai.org/allergies/types/hay-fever-rhinitis