Disease: Hay fever
Hay fever, also called allergic rhinitis, causes cold-like signs and symptoms, such as a runny nose, itchy eyes, congestion, sneezing and sinus pressure. But unlike a cold, hay fever isn't caused by a virus. Hay fever is caused by an allergic response to outdoor or indoor allergens, such as pollen, dust mites or tiny flecks of skin and saliva shed by cats, dogs and other animals with fur or feathers (pet dander).
Besides making you miserable, hay fever can affect your performance at work or school and generally interfere with your life. But you don't have to put up with annoying symptoms. You can learn to avoid triggers and find the right treatment.
Hay fever signs and symptoms can include:
- Runny nose and nasal congestion
- Watery, itchy, red eyes (allergic conjunctivitis)
- Itchy nose, roof of mouth or throat
- Swollen, blue-colored skin under the eyes (allergic shiners)
- Postnasal drip
Your hay fever signs and symptoms may start or worsen at a particular time of year. Triggers include:
- Tree pollen, which is common in early spring.
- Grass pollen, which is common in late spring and summer.
- Ragweed pollen, which is common in fall.
- Dust mites, cockroaches and dander from pets can occur year-round (perennial). Symptoms to indoor allergens might worsen in winter, when houses are closed up.
- Spoors from indoor and outdoor fungi and molds are considered both seasonal and perennial.
Hay fever or common cold?
Signs and symptoms can be similar, so it can be difficult to tell which one you have.
|Signs and symptoms||Runny nose with thin, watery discharge; no fever||Runny nose with watery or thick yellow discharge; body aches; low-grade fever|
|Onset||Immediately after exposure to allergens||1-3 days after exposure to a cold virus|
|Duration||As long as you're exposed to allergens||3-7 days|
When to see a doctor
See your doctor if:
- You can't find relief from your hay fever symptoms
- Allergy medications don't provide relief or cause annoying side effects
- You have another condition that can worsen hay fever symptoms, such as nasal polyps, asthma or frequent sinus infections
Many people â especially children â get used to hay fever symptoms, so they might not seek treatment until the symptoms become severe. But getting the right treatment might offer relief.
When you have hay fever, your immune system identifies a harmless airborne substance as harmful. Your immune system then produces antibodies to this harmless substance. The next time you come in contact with the substance, these antibodies signal your immune system to release chemicals such as histamine into your bloodstream, which cause a reaction that leads to the signs and symptoms of hay fever.
Your doctor will perform a physical examination, take a medical history and possibly recommend one or both of the following tests:
- Skin prick test. You're watched for an allergic reaction after small amounts of material that can trigger allergies are pricked into the skin of your arm or upper back. If you're allergic, you develop a raised bump (hive) at the site of that allergen. Allergy specialists usually are best equipped to perform allergy skin tests.
- Allergy blood test. A blood sample is sent to a lab to measure your immune system's response to a specific allergen. Also called the radioallergosorbent test (RAST), this test measures the amount of allergy-causing antibodies in your bloodstream, known as immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies.
Problems that may be associated with hay fever include:
- Reduced quality of life. Hay fever can interfere with your enjoyment of activities and cause you to be less productive. For many people, hay fever symptoms lead to absences from work or school.
- Poor sleep. Hay fever symptoms can keep you awake or make it hard to stay asleep, which can lead to fatigue and a general feeling of being unwell (malaise).
- Worsening asthma. Hay fever can worsen signs and symptoms of asthma, such as coughing and wheezing.
- Sinusitis. Prolonged sinus congestion due to hay fever may increase your susceptibility to sinusitis â an infection or inflammation of the membrane that lines the sinuses.
- Ear infection. In children, hay fever often is a factor in middle ear infection (otitis media).
There's no way to avoid getting hay fever. If you have hay fever, the best thing to do is to lessen your exposure to the allergens that cause your symptoms. Take allergy medications before you're exposed to allergens, as directed by your doctor.
While there isn't much evidence about how well they work, a number of people try alternative treatments for hay fever. These include:
Herbal remedies and supplements. Extracts of the shrub butterbur may help prevent seasonal allergy symptoms. If you do try butterbur, be sure to use a product that's labeled "PA-free," which indicates it's had potentially toxic substances removed.
There's some limited evidence that spirulina and Tinospora cordifolia also may be effective. Though their benefits are unclear, other herbal remedies for seasonal allergies include capsicum, honey, vitamin C and fish oil.
- Acupuncture. Some people claim acupuncture can help with seasonal allergy symptoms. There's limited evidence that these treatments work, and there's little evidence of harm.Â
Lifestyle and home remedies
It's not possible to completely avoid allergens, but you can reduce your symptoms by limiting your exposure to them. If you know what you're allergic to, you can avoid your triggers.
Pollen or molds
- Close doors and windows during pollen season.
- Don't hang laundry outside â pollen can stick to sheets and towels.
- Use air conditioning in your house and car.
- Use an allergy-grade filter in your home ventilation system and change it regularly.
- Avoid outdoor activity in the early morning, when 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 or raking leaves.
- Wear a dust mask when cleaning house or gardening.
- Use allergy-proof covers on mattresses, box springs and pillows.
- Wash sheets and blankets in water heated to at least 130 F (54 C).
- Use a dehumidifier or 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 (acaricides) and approved for indoor use on carpets, furniture and bedding.
- Consider removing carpeting, especially where you sleep, if you're highly sensitive to dust mites.
- Block cracks and crevices where roaches can enter.
- Fix leaky faucets and pipes.
- Wash dishes and empty garbage daily.
- Sweep food crumbs from counters and floors.
- Store food, including pet food, in sealed containers.
- Consider professional pest extermination.
- Keep pets out of your home, if possible.
- Bathe dogs twice a week, if possible. The benefit of bathing cats hasn't been proven.
- Keep pets out of the bedroom and off furniture.
The following can increase your risk of developing hay fever:
- Having other allergies or asthma
- Having atopic dermatitis (eczema)
- Having a blood relative (such as a parent or sibling) with allergies or asthma
- Living or working in an environment that constantly exposes you to allergens â such as animal dander
- Having a mother who smoked during your first year of life
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