Sneezing and coughing, or itchy eyes and runny nose, sneezing and sinus pressure during certain time of the year may all be signs of seasonal allergies, commonly known as hay fever. These symptoms are similar to cold symptoms, but unlike a cold, hay fever isn’t caused by a virus. Hay fever is caused by exaggerated immune response to outdoor allergens, most commonly mold, tree, grass and weed pollen.
The medical term for hay fever is allergic rhinitis, and it is most likely to occur when pollen ramps up in the spring, summer and fall. You don’t have to be exposed to hay to have it and it causes prolonged, sometimes violent sneezing, itchy eyes, nose and throat, postnasal drip that causes coughing, red and watery eyes and dark circles under the eyes, and head and nasal congestion.
So, what is the difference between hay fever and a cold? With a cold you have a runny nose with watery or thick yellow discharge, body aches and low-grade fever. With hay fever, you have a runny nose with thin watery discharge, and no fever. Onset with hay fever is immediately after exposure to allergens, while the onset of a cold is 1-3 days after exposure to a cold virus. And the duration of a cold is usually 3-7 days, while the duration of hay fever is as long as you are exposed to allergens.
About 35 million American have hay fever. How do you know if you have hay fever? Your doctor will make the diagnosis based on symptoms and a physical exam. If more proof is needed, skin and blood tests may be performed to see how your body reacts to certain substances. During a skin test, your back or arm will be pricked with tiny tubes that contain common allergens. If you are allergic to any of them, your skin will get red, itchy, or swollen at the test site. Allergy blood tests measure your immune systems response to a specific allergen.
What causes hay fever? Your immune system identifies a harmless airborne substance as harmful. Your immune system then produces antibodies to this harmless substance and the next time you encounter the substance, these antibodies signal your immune system to release chemicals into your blood stream. These chemicals such as histamine cause a reaction that lead to the symptoms of hay fever. Having allergies, asthma, eczema or a blood relative with allergies or asthma increases your risk of developing hay fever. Also, living or working in an environment that constantly exposes you to allergens increases your risk of developing hay fever
How is allergic rhinitis treated? Prevention is the first step – if possible, limit outdoor activities when pollen counts are high. Use nasal irrigation and saline sprays to help remove allergen particles from your nose. Saline sprays are available over the counter. Nasal corticosteroids are also available which help prevent and treat nasal inflammation and nasal itching. These are a safe, long term treatment for most people. Antihistamines are also available to help with itching, sneezing and runny nose, but are usually less effective on nasal congestion. Decongestants are available over the counter and prescriptions in liquids, nasal sprays and pill form. The oral decongestants can cause several side effects including elevated blood pressure insomnia and headache. The nasal decongestants use should be limited to three days at a time because it can worsen symptoms when used continuously.
Some people also elect to have immunotherapy if their symptoms are not relieved by medications. This is given as shots or daily pills, and it offers long-term relief from allergy symptoms. The individual is given regular injections containing tiny amounts of allergens. Over time, their body will get used to them and be less likely to react. Shots are received at the doctor’s office, and it might take several years to complete the therapy. The pills are usually taken at home, but only grass and ragweed allergies are treated this way.
Seek treatment from your doctor if you can’t find relief from hay fever symptoms and allergy medications are not improving your symptoms. You should also see your doctor if you have any medical conditions that can worsen your hay fever symptoms such as nasal polyps, asthma or frequent sinus infections.