Nearly one in five Americans suffers from seasonal allergic rhinitis, more commonly known as hay fever. Hay fever occurs when a person's immune system overreacts to an outdoor allergen such as pollen. As the pollen of insect-pollinated plants are too heavy to remain airborne for long, the most common culprits responsible for hay fever are wind-pollenated plants such as trees, grasses, and weeds.
Seasonal allergies are less common during the winter, but because different plants emit their respective pollens at different times of the year, symptoms of hay fever may effect an individual year-round, depending on their immune system and where they live.
Symptoms of Seasonal Allergies
Symptoms of allergic rhinitis range from mild to severe. In addition, many people with hay fever suffer from asthma as well. The most common symptoms of allergic rhinitis include:
- runny or stuffy nose
- watery eyes
- itchy sinuses, throat, eyes, or ear canals
- ear congestion
- postnasal drainage
Less common symptoms may include: headache, shortness of breath, coughing, or wheezing.
Trees are responsible for most springtime seasonal allergies. Birch is the main offender in the northern latitudes, with between 15 and 20 percent of hay fever sufferers affected by its pollen. Other allergy producing trees in North America include cedar, alder, horse chestnut, willow, and poplar.
Hay fever gets its name not from an allergy to hay, but from the fact that many people are afflicted at about the same time as the historical hay-cutting season during the summer months. The real culprits of summertime seasonal allergies are grasses such as ryegrass and Timothy-grass, along with certain weeds. Some 90 percent of hay fever sufferers react to grass pollens, making them the most notorious allergens on the planet.
Autumn is ragweed season. Also known as Ambrosia, there are more than 40 species of ragweed worldwide, most occurring in temperate regions in North and South America. The invasive weeds themselves are difficult to control and symptoms of ragweed allergy can be especially severe. Other plants that drop their pollen in the fall include nettles, mugworts, sorrels, fat hens, and plantains.
By winter, most outdoor allergens lie dormant. While the cold weather may bring much-needed relief to many millions of people with hay fever, it also means more folks are spending time indoors. For those prone to seasonal allergies, outdoor allergens are simply replaced by indoor ones such as mold, pet dander, and dust mites. Fortunately for sufferers of these types of allergies—known collectively as “perennial allergic rhinitis”—inside allergens are easier to remove from the environment than their wind-driven counterparts. You can take a number of steps to rid the home of offending allergens, including:
- washing bedding at least once a week in very hot water
- getting rid of carpets and all upholstered furniture
- removing stuffed toys from children's bedrooms
- covering bedding and pillows with allergen-proof covers
- fixing any water leaks and cleaning up water damage that may produce mold
- cleaning moldy surfaces and any places mold may form including in humidifiers, swamp coolers, and air conditioners
- using a dehumidifier
Diagnosis and Treatment
Hay fever is usually easier to diagnose than other allergies. If symptoms only occur at certain times of the year, it’s a clue that a person is suffering from seasonal allergic rhinitis. A doctor may also check a patient's ears, nose, and throat to confirm the diagnosis.
Hay fever treatments are generally the same regardless of the allergen. Therefore, allergy testing is usually not necessary. The best medicine for hay fever, as with perennial allergic rhinitis, is avoidance. For instance, sufferers should opt for air conditioners rather than ceiling fans during the summer. They should also keep their windows shut and wear a dust mask outdoors on windy days.
Because avoidance isn't always an option, there are many other treatments available, including over-the-counter medications such as decongestants and antihistamines like Zyrtec, Benadryl or prescription medications, such as steroid nasal sprays. In the most severe cases, a doctor may prescribe allergy eye drops or allergy shots. As some allergy medications may have unwanted side effects such as drowsiness, dizziness, and confusion, people often turn to alternative treatments for relief.
Not many studies have been done on alternative treatments for hay fever, although a few show some promise, including quercetin (a flavonoid that gives fruits and vegetables color), lactobacillus acidophilus (the "friendly" bacteria in yogurt), spirulina (a type of blue-green algae), and vitamin C (which has some antihistamine properties). In all cases, however, more study is needed. Another way to help relieve hay fever is to either quit smoking or avoid smokers, as studies have shown that cigarette smoke can aggravate hay fever and asthma symptoms.