What Is Hay Fever (Allergic Rhinitis)?
Hay fever is an immune response to certain indoor and outdoor allergens, such as pollen, pet dander, and dust mites. The medical term for this condition is allergic rhinitis. Hay fever produces cold-like symptoms centered on the nasal passages. It is common in the U.S., affecting an estimated 40 to 60 million people. There is no cure for hay fever, but there are a variety of treatments available for suppressing symptoms and reducing the severity and frequency of their impact.
Though hay fever is unlikely to be a serious threat to your health, it can be unpleasant and a source of considerable discomfort. If you or a loved one are dealing with allergic rhinitis, see your Baptist Health physician for consultation and treatment.
What Types of Hay Fever Are There?
There are two primary forms of hay fever:
- Seasonal: Seasonal hay fever occurs only at certain times of the year, typically the spring and fall. In most cases, the cause is the release by plants of airborne pollens, which the body treats as allergens.
- Perennial: Perennial hay fever is year-round hay fever. Here the cause is indoor allergens, such as animal dander or dust mites, to which there is constant exposure.
Depending on what your body treats as allergens, you can suffer from either seasonal or perennial hay fever, or both. With the latter, the allergic response intensifies during spring and fall.
What Are Hay Fever Symptoms?
Hay fever symptoms mostly match those of the common cold, but with a different source of irritation:
- Stuffy or runny nose
- Itchy, teary eyes
- Swollen sinuses (“bags under the eyes”)
- Scratchy or sore throat
- Sinus pressure or headaches
- Itchy skin
- Eczema or hives
Some symptoms can manifest almost immediately on contact with an allergen. Others result from long-term exposure. It is unusual to experience all of these symptoms together.
What Causes Hay Fever?
Hay fever is caused by allergens rather than pathogens (germs). Allergens stimulate the body to release histamines, a chemical compound that facilitates the immune response to perceived health threats. Hay fever symptoms are a side effect of histamine release.
Depending on an individual’s body chemistry, a wide variety of natural substances can act as allergens. These include:
- Tree pollens
- Grass pollens
- Molds and fungi
- Dog and cat saliva
- Pet dander (old, dead skin)
- Dust mites
Other factors can exacerbate an allergic reaction. Among these are colognes and perfumes, hairsprays, tobacco or wood smoke, air pollution, paint and home-repair chemicals, and even cold temperatures.
How Is Hay Fever Treated?
Your provider will likely take the following steps to diagnose allergic rhinitis:
- Medical history and exam: Your doctor will begin by examining and recording your symptoms. He or she will also ask questions about your personal and family medical history.
- Skin prick test: A skin prick test is used to determine whether you are allergic to any of the agents commonly located inside or around the home. Tiny samples are placed under the surface of the skin by means of needles or pins. Any sample that causes your skin to react by swelling or turning red is categorized as an allergen.
- Allergy blood test: Allergy blood tests, also called RAST tests, measure the volume of immunoglobulin E or IgE antibodies in the bloodstream. IgE antibodies are associated with immune reactions to allergens.
If you are diagnosed with a hay fever allergy, the best way of treating it is to avoid the allergens that set it off. Often this isn’t possible, so medical science has developed a number of ways to suppress or control symptoms:
- Antihistamines: Antihistamines block many of the effects of allergen-triggered histamines, including sneezing, itching, and nasal drip. There are both over-the-counter and prescription antihistamines.
- Decongestants: Decongestants work to relieve nasal congestion and sinus pressure. Both over-the-counter and prescription versions are available.
- Nasal corticosteroids: Nasal corticosteroids reduce itchiness, stuffiness, and swelling of the nasal passages. They are available both with and without a prescription.
- Oral corticosteroids: Oral corticosteroids are sometimes used to treat persons with unusually severe allergy symptoms. Prednisone is one such medication.
- Leukotriene inhibitors: Like histamines, leukotrienes are a chemical produced by your immune system. Leukotriene inhibitors, such as montelukast, reduce the impact that these chemicals have on mucous production. They’ve shown success in treating allergy-induced asthma.
- Immunotherapy: The goal of immunotherapy is to desensitize your body to the presence of environmental irritants. This is done with allergy shots. Following a skin prick or similar test, you receive shots containing small amounts of the allergens. Your physician will gradually increase these amounts over time. You’ll stop receiving the shots on a regular basis after a period of three to five years, when you’ve built up a tolerance to the allergens.
- Sublingual allergy tablets: Sublingual allergy tablets work the same way as allergy shots, only in pill form. You take the tablets daily, placing them under your tongue.
- Sinus rinses: Flushing your nasal passages with a sterile saline solution can help relieve congestion. These rinses are delivered by means of a squeeze bottle or neti pot.
In addition to medical treatments, there are various steps you can take at home to reduce the impact of allergens. As examples, you can surround your mattresses with allergy-proof covers to control dust-mite populations. High-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters can reduce your home’s pollen or dust load. If you have a dog or cat, vacuum frequently to limit your exposure to pet dander.
When Should I See a Physician for Hay Fever?
If your hay fever symptoms becomes so uncomfortable that they interfere with daily living, then seek out medical help. This is especially true if you also suffer from asthma, nasal polyps, or some other kind of sinus infection.
When it comes to allergies, the caring professionals at Baptist Health can help clear the air. Schedule an appointment with a Baptist Health physician.
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