For many, spring signals a new beginning: the snow is melting, the trees are blossoming, and the sun is staying out longer. For others however, spring means the start to another season of sneezing, stuffy noses, and itchy, watery eyes. Affecting some 40 million Americans, hay fever is one of the most common allergies in the United States. Although children are more likely to suffer from hay fever than adults, everyone is susceptible. And while over-the-counter medication is available, those suffering from more severe symptoms should seek medical treatment, as left untreated it could lessen one’s overall quality of life.
What is Hay Fever and Why Does it Occur?
In contradiction to its name, hay fever is not normally caused by hay, and it never results in a fever. It gets its name from the harvesting farmers who attributed their symptoms to hay. Hay fever, or allergic rhinitis, is an allergic reaction to airborne substances, like pollen, that can enter your air passages (like your nose or mouth) as well as the linings of your eyes. Once these substances enter your airways, they cause your body to release antibodies and produce histamine. It is the release of the histamine that causes your airways to swell and is responsible for most of the symptoms of hay fever.
Normally, hay fever refers to seasonal allergic rhinitis, which is caused by pollen being released from blossoming trees, flowers, grasses and weeds (pollen from ragweed, for example, is a very common allergen) during the spring, summer and fall.
Perennial allergic rhinitis, on the other hand, refers to a similar allergy that occurs all-year-round, which is caused by indoor airborne allergens such as dust mites or pet dander.
When is Hay Fever most likely to Occur?
Although certain year-round allergens can spawn hay fever symptoms at any time, most hay fever sufferers are reacting to the release of the specific pollen that they are allergic to, and therefore will experience their symptoms over a certain period of time.
Indeed, 3 out of 4 people with allergies in the US are allergic to ragweed, which is released anywhere between mid-summer and late fall, depending on where in the country you are located. Nearly half of allergy sufferers are allergic to grass, which has its peak season from mid-spring to early summer. Finally, the 10% who are allergic to trees can look forward to hay fever symptoms beginning in the early spring, depending on which kind of tree is producing the allergen.
What are the Symptoms?
Symptoms of hay fever range in severity, and may include:
- Itchy, watery eyes
- Clear, runny nose
- Wheezing or tingling in the throat
Left untreated, these symptoms can lead to:
- difficulty sleeping
- postnasal drip
- facial pain caused by sinus pressure
What can I do to Relieve My Symptoms?
If you notice any of the symptoms listed above, it is best to visit an allergy specialist before beginning treatment, so that he can pinpoint the allergen responsible for your symptoms. Identifying specifically what you are allergic to is crucial in determining what form of treatment will work best for you.
Sometimes, simply avoiding the allergen is enough the curb the onset of allergy symptoms. There may be certain times of day, for example, when you should avoid being outdoors. Also, using air-conditioning and staying indoors during allergy season is generally recommended. Of course, avoidance may not always be possible. And while some people may outgrow their seasonal allergies, there is no cure for hay fever. There are, however, many treatment options available, including:
- Corticosteroid Nasal Sprays: Because these are often the most effective allergy treatment they are usually the first to be recommended. They work by reducing swelling in the air passages. However they usually take several days before they start to work and must be taken regularly to be effective.
- Antihistamines: These over-the-counter medications that range from oral medicines to nasal sprays work by preventing the histamine your body releases form causing allergy symptoms. While antihistamines are generally successful at relieving eye itchiness and sneezing, they are somewhat less effective at reducing a blocked nasal passage and may cause drowsiness.
- Decongestants: Decongestants come in several different forms: nasal sprays, oral medication and eye drops, and usually in combination with an antihistamine. While they can be very effective, using decongestants over a prolonged period of time may cause dependency, especially the nasal sprays. See the package for instructions and do not use longer than recommended (usually 3-5 days).
- Cromolyn sodium: This nasal spray works in the same way as an antihistamine by preventing the release of the histamine. It is most effective when used before symptoms occur and may need to be used up to three or four times a day.
- Immunotherapy: This is only used when avoidance and other medications have not been successful. Immunotherapy involves the regular injection of purified allergen extracts over a period of five years. It is designed to gradually make your body less susceptible to allergic reactions and reduce the need for medication.
Naturopathic doctors, alternatively, view allergies as a sign of deficiencies in the adrenal, immune or digestive systems. Their goal is to build up these systems so as to prevent the symptoms from occurring in the first place. Using certain herbs (like stinging nettles) a couple of months before allergy season approaches may help to alleviate symptoms of hay fever. Also, changing to a hypoallergenic diet may reduce symptoms as well as improve your overall health.