An allergen is an otherwise harmless substance that causes an allergic reaction. Allergic rhinitis, or hay fever, is an allergic response to specific allergens. Pollen is the most common allergen in seasonal allergic rhinitis. These are allergy symptoms that occur with the change of seasons.
Nearly 8 percent of adults in the United States experience allergic rhinitis of some kind, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI). Between 10 and 30 percent of the worldwide population may also have allergic rhinitis.
Common symptoms of allergic rhinitis include:
- a runny nose
- a stuffy nose
- an itchy nose
- a sore or scratchy throat
- itchy eyes
- watery eyes
- dark circles under the eyes
- frequent headaches
- eczema-type symptoms, such as having extremely dry, itchy skin that can blister and weep
- excessive fatigue
You’ll usually feel one or more of these symptoms immediately after coming into contact with an allergen. Some symptoms, such as recurrent headaches and fatigue, may only happen after long-term exposure to allergens. Fever isn’t a symptom of hay fever.
Some people experience symptoms only rarely. This likely occurs when you’re exposed to allergens in large quantities. Other people experience symptoms all year long. Talk to your doctor about possible allergies if your symptoms last for more than a few weeks and don’t seem to be improving.
When your body comes into contact with an allergen, it releases histamine, which is a natural chemical that defends your body from the allergen. This chemical can cause allergic rhinitis and its symptoms, including a runny nose, sneezing, and itchy eyes.
In addition to tree pollen, other common allergens include:
- grass pollen
- dust mites
- animal dander, which is old skin
- cat saliva
During certain times of the year, pollen can be especially problematic. Tree and flower pollens are more common in the spring. Grasses and weeds produce more pollen in the summer and fall.
The two types of allergic rhinitis are seasonal and perennial. Seasonal allergies usually occur during the spring and fall season and are typically in response to outdoor allergens like pollen. Perennial allergies can occur year round, or at any time during the year in response to indoor substances, like dust mites and pet dander.
Allergies can affect anyone, but you’re more likely to develop allergic rhinitis if there is a history of allergies in your family. Having asthma or atopic eczema can also increase your risk of allergic rhinitis.
Some external factors can trigger or worsen this condition, including:
- cigarette smoke
- cold temperatures
- air pollution
- wood smoke
If you have minor allergies, you’ll probably only need a physical exam. However, your doctor may perform certain tests to figure out the best treatment and prevention plan for you.
A skin prick test is one of the most common. Your doctor places several substances onto your skin to see how your body reacts to each one. Usually, a small red bump appears if you’re allergic to a substance.
A blood test, or radioallergosorbent test (RAST), is also common. The RAST measures the amount of immunoglobulin E antibodies to particular allergens in your blood.
You can treat your allergic rhinitis in several ways. These include medications, as well as home remedies and possibly alternative medicines. Talk to your doctor before trying any new treatment measure for allergic rhinitis.
You can take antihistamines to treat allergies. They work by stopping your body from making histamine.
Some popular over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamines include:
- fexofenadine (Allegra)
- diphenhydramine (Benadryl)
- desloratadine (Clarinex)
- loratadine (Claritin)
- levocetirizine (Xyzal)
- cetirizine (Zyrtec)
Talk to your doctor before starting a new medication. Make sure that a new allergy medication won’t interfere with other medications or medical conditions.
You can use decongestants over a short period, usually no longer than three days, to relieve a stuffy nose and sinus pressure. Using them for a longer time can cause a rebound effect, meaning once you stop your symptoms will actually get worse. Popular OTC decongestants include:
- oxymetazoline (Afrin nasal spray)
- pseudoephedrine (Sudafed)
- phenylephrine (Sudafed PE)
- cetirizine with pseudoephedrine (Zyrtec-D)
If you have an abnormal heart rhythm, heart disease, history of stroke, anxiety, a sleep disorder, high blood pressure, or bladder issues, speak with your doctor before using a decongestant.
Eye drops and nasal sprays
Eye drops and nasal sprays can help relieve itchiness and other allergy-related symptoms for a short time. However, depending on the product, you may need to avoid long-term use.
Like decongestants, overusing certain eye drops and nose drops can also cause a rebound effect.
Corticosteroids can help with inflammation and immune responses. These do not cause a rebound effect. Steroid nasal sprays are commonly recommended as a long-term, useful way to manage allergy symptoms. They are available both over the counter and by prescription.
Talk to your doctor before starting a regimen of any allergy treatment to make sure you are taking the best medications for your symptoms. You doctor can also help you determine which products are made for short-term use and which are designed for long-term management.
Your doctor may recommend immunotherapy, or allergy shots, if you have severe allergies. You can use this treatment plan in conjunction with medications to control your symptoms. These shots decrease your immune response to particular allergens over time. They do require a long-term commitment to a treatment plan.
An allergy shot regimen begins with a buildup phase. During this phase, you’ll go to your allergist for a shot one to three times per week for about three to six months to let your body get used to the allergen in the shot.
During the maintenance phase, you will likely need to see your allergist for shots every two to four weeks over the course of three to five years. You may not notice a change until over a year after the maintenance phase begins. Once you reach this point, it’s possible that your allergy symptoms will fade or disappear altogether.
Some people can experience severe allergic reactions to an allergen in their shot. Many allergists ask you to wait in the office for 30 to 45 minutes after a shot to ensure that you don’t have an intense or life-threatening response to it.
Sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT)
SLIT involves placing a tablet containing a mixture of several allergens under your tongue. It works similarly to allergy shots but without an injection. Currently, it is effective for treating rhinitis and asthma allergies caused by grass, tree pollen, cat dander, dust mites, and ragweed. You can take SLIT treatments, such as Oralair for certain grass allergies, at home after an initial consultation with your doctor. Your first dose of any SLIT will take place in your doctor’s office. Like allergy shots, the medication is taken frequently over a period of time determined by your doctor.
Possible side effects include itching in the mouth or ear and throat irritation. In rare cases, SLIT treatments can cause anaphylaxis. Talk to your doctor about SLIT to see if your allergies will respond to this treatment. Your doctor will need to direct your treatment with this method.
Home remedies will depend on your allergens. If you have seasonal or pollen allergies, you can try using an air conditioner instead of opening your windows. If possible, add a filter designed for allergies.
Using a dehumidifier or a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter can help you control your allergies while indoors. If you’re allergic to dust mites, wash your sheets and blankets in hot water that’s above 130°F (54.4°C). Adding a HEPA filter to your vacuum and vacuuming weekly may also help. Limiting carpet in your home can also be useful.
Alternative and complimentary medicine
Due to concerns over possible side effects, more people with allergies are looking at ways to address hay fever symptoms “naturally.” However, it is important to remember that any medication can have side effects, even if it’s considered natural. Aside from home remedies, options can also include alternative and complimentary medicine. The downside to these treatments can be that there’s little supporting evidence to prove that they’re safe or effective. The correct dosing may also be difficult to determine or achieve.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), some of the treatments below may be helpful in managing seasonal allergies, but more research is still needed. Talk to your doctor before trying any of the following.
- nasal saline irrigation
- butterbur supplements
- honey (choose raw, organic varieties)
Although these alternative treatments are derived from plants and other natural substances, they can possibly interact with medications, as well as cause reactions. Try these with caution, and ask your doctor before use.
Unfortunately, allergic rhinitis itself can’t be prevented. Treatment and management are keys to achieving a good quality of life with allergies. Some complications that can arise from hay fever include:
- inability to sleep from symptoms keeping you up at night
- development or worsening of asthma symptoms
- frequent ear infections
- sinusitis or frequent sinus infections
- absences from school or work because of reduced productivity
- frequent headaches
Complications can also arise from antihistamine side effects. Most commonly, drowsiness can occur. Other side effects include headache, anxiety, and insomnia. In rare cases, antihistamines can cause gastrointestinal, urinary, and circulatory effects.
Children can develop allergic rhinitis too, and it typically appears before the age of 10. If you notice that your child develops cold-like symptoms at the same time each year, they probably have seasonal allergic rhinitis.
The symptoms in children are similar to those in adults. Children usually develop watery, bloodshot eyes, which is called allergic conjunctivitis. If you notice wheezing or shortness of breath in addition to other symptoms, your child may have also developed asthma.
If you believe your child has allergies, see your doctor. It’s important to receive the correct diagnosis and treatment.
If your child does have significant seasonal allergies, limit your child’s exposure to allergens by keeping them inside when pollen counts are high. Washing their clothes and sheets frequently during allergy season and vacuuming regularly may also be useful. Many different treatments are available to help your child’s allergies. However, some medications can cause side effects, even in small doses. Always talk to your doctor before treating your child with any over-the-counter allergy medication.
The outcome of treatment depends on your condition. Seasonal allergic rhinitis usually isn’t severe, and you can manage it well with medications. However, severe forms of this condition will likely require long-term treatment.
The best way to prevent allergy symptoms is to manage your allergies before your body has a chance to respond to substances adversely. Consider the following preventive measures for the particular allergens you’re sensitive to:
The AAAAI recommends starting medications before seasonal allergy attacks. For example, if you’re sensitive to tree pollen in the spring, you may want to start taking antihistamines before an allergic reaction has the chance to occur. Stay indoors during peak pollen hours, and take a shower immediately after being outside. You’ll also want to keep your windows closed during allergy season and avoid line-drying any laundry.
To reduce dust mite exposure, you can take measures to make sure your home is not a friendly environment for dust mite development. Wet mop hard floors, rather than sweeping. If you have carpet, use a vacuum with a HEPA filter. You’ll also want to dust hard surfaces often, and wash your bedding weekly in hot water. Use allergen-blocking pillows and cases to decrease dust mite exposure while you’re sleeping.
Ideally, you’ll want to limit exposure to any animals that you’re allergic to. If this isn’t possible, make sure you clean all surfaces often. Wash your hands immediately after touching pets, and make sure your furry friends stay off your bed. You’ll also want to wash your clothes after visiting homes that have pets.