Hay Fever

Written by Valencia Higuera | Published on December 1, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on December 1, 2014

Hay Fever Overview

Hey fever, also called allergic rhinitis, is a common condition affecting approximately 40 to 60 million Americans, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI).

Just like other types of allergies, hay fever is your body’s response to an allergen, either indoor or outdoor. These can include:

  • animal dander
  • dust mites
  • mold spore
  • pollen
  • grass

Some people develop hay fever seasonally, such as during the spring or summer months when trees and flowers are in bloom, while others have symptoms year round.

Since hay fever is an allergic response, symptoms typically start soon after exposure to an allergen. Symptoms can be mild to severe, and may include any of the following:

  • watery, itchy eyes
  • sneezing
  • coughing
  • itchy nose, mouth, or throat
  • sinus pressure
  • inability to smell or taste
  • stuffy nose

Causes and Risk Factors for Hay Fever

After exposure to an allergen, your immune system creates antibodies and releases a chemical called histamine into your bloodstream. This chemical triggers distressing hay fever symptoms, such as watery eyes, sneezing, and coughing.

Hay fever can happen to anyone. But some people are at higher risk for allergic rhinitis. This includes individuals who’ve been diagnosed with asthma or who have other allergies, and those with a family history of allergies or asthma.

Diagnosing Hay Fever

A family doctor or allergist can diagnose hay fever. But before doctors make a diagnosis, they’ll ask several questions about your personal and family medical history, and your work and home environment. These questions are designed to provide clues about possible triggers. A routine physical exam is also part of the diagnostic process.

There are two tests used to diagnose hay fever.

A Skin Prick Test

A small sample of different allergens is pricked into your skin. Doctors administer the test in either the arm or upper back. After about 20 minutes, your doctor evaluates your skin for an allergic response, which can include a rash or hives.

An Allergy Blood Test

If a skin prick test doesn't offer answers, your doctor may recommend an allergy blood test. A blood sample will be drawn from a vein in your arm. This type of test is very specific and tests for only one type of allergen as a time.

Hay Fever Treatments

Many people are able to minimize their hay fever symptoms by avoiding substances that trigger a reaction. But this isn't always possible. If you can’t avoid an allergen, several treatments are available to control symptoms. These include prescription and over-the-counter medications.

  • Nasal corticosteroids: A medication that reduces nasal inflammation and runny nose.
  • Antihistamines: These medications block histamine, which is the chemical that causes symptoms of an allergic reaction. Available over-the-counter or by prescription, antihistamines can stop a runny nose and sneezing.
  • Decongestants: A medication that shrinks swollen membranes in the nose, which helps relieve nasal congestion caused by colds and allergies. 
  • Oral corticosteroids: In the case of severe allergies, your doctor may recommend oral corticosteroids medication like prednisone. These drugs can effectively reduce allergy symptoms, but long-term use increases the risk for muscle weakness, osteoporosis, and cataracts.
  • Nasal rinse: Nasal irrigation or a saline rinse is another effective treatment for hay fever. These rinses are available over-the-counter and designed to flush allergens from your nose and reduce symptoms. Use sinus rinses as instructed.

Other drugs used to treat hay fever include cromolyn sodium, leukotriene modifiers, and nasal ipratropium.

Sometimes, symptoms of hay fever don’t improve with prescription or over-the-counter medications. In this case, your doctor may suggest allergy shots. This therapy helps reduce your body’s response to substances that trigger allergic responses. Over a period of several months or years, your doctor injects small amounts of an allergen into your body. As time progresses, the severity of your reactions should decrease, to the point where you no longer need medication.

Prevention and Complications

There’s no way to prevent hay fever. It can be a chronic, distressing condition that interferes with your quality of life. Outdoor allergens might keep you stuck indoors during the spring and summer months, and sneezing or congestion from indoor allergies might keep you awake at night. Additionally, hay fever can complicate asthma, and it can trigger ear infections and sinusitis.

Currently, there's no cure for hay fever. But with a diagnosis and a treatment plan, the majority of your days can be symptom-free.

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