Hay fever is an allergic reaction that happens when airborne pollen comes into contact with the nose, eyes, and throat. Read more to learn about its causes, symptoms, and the best options available for treatment.
What Is Hay Fever?
Hay fever, sometimes referred to as allergic rhinitis, is a condition that develops in people who are sensitive to pollen. It is an allergic reaction that occurs when airborne molecules come into contact with the cells that line the mouth, nose, eyes, and throat, prompting an immune response.
The processes behind hay fever are very similar to those of other allergic reactions - the body mistakes an incoming substance as a threat, then launches an immune system defense response that produces histamines and other chemicals to fight back. This results in allergy symptoms, including inflammation-induced coughing, sneezing, itchy eyes, excess mucus production, and swollen tissue.
The main difference between what people consider hay fever and other allergies is the source of the problem - pollen. Whereas other reactions may be caused by substances like dust, mold, animal dander, or certain foods, hay fever is seen as an outdoor allergy that occurs on a seasonal basis.
What Causes Hay Fever?
Every spring, summer, and fall, trees, grasses, and weeds release tiny grains of pollen into the air to fertilize other plants of the same species. This annual cycle plays a significant role in their reproductive process.
Airborne pollen grains are released by the millions yet are microscopically small enough to go unnoticed by the naked eye. They can float for miles in the wind - as far as 1800 miles by some estimates.
The term hay fever is used to refer to allergies that are specifically caused by this circulating pollen. The natural, powdery substance is commonly found outdoors and can trigger allergy symptoms when inhaled or touched. Below is a breakdown of the three most common types of pollen you'll come across.
Tree pollen is released by trees in the spring. It is incredibly fine and lightweight, capable of traveling for miles. This makes it a tough allergen to avoid, as you don't necessarily have to live in a highly-forested area to feel the effects.
While most trees pollinate, not all species do so at the same time or have the same potential to trigger allergies.
The most well-known offenders include:
Grass pollen begins to circulate in the late spring and usually hits peak levels at the end of the summer. This type of pollen is also challenging to avoid, as most areas in the United States - aside from desert climates - grow grass everywhere.
Similarly to trees, there are several specific varieties of grass known to cause allergies. These include:
- Sweet vernal
Weed pollen is emitted by a family of plants that most people refer to as 'weeds'. This includes ragweed, sagebrush, Russian thistle, pigweed, mugwort, dock, nettle, and sorrel, among other usually-unwanted species.
Weeds can pop up everywhere, from a home's front lawn to a meadow or soccer field. Their pollination peaks in the late summer and fall.
Signs and Symptoms of Hay Fever
The symptoms of hay fever are consistent with common allergy symptoms. Pollen is an airborne allergen that is likely to cause symptoms local to the nose, mouth, eyes, and respiratory tract. While signs of hay fever may differ from person to person, the most common ones are outlined below.
Sneezing is one of the body's most immediate defense mechanisms against allergens. It occurs when the nerves in your nose detect a foreign particle, instructing the brain to expel it from your system in a sudden and powerful burst of air.
When the mucous membranes of the nose become inflamed, they produce excess fluid. This is referred to as a runny nose or rhinorrhea. It can cause a range of sensations, from clear and watery mucus to thick yellow or green snot.
Hay fever can cause coughing due to increased mucus in the throat and airways. Coughing is an effort to expel the excess fluid and any pollen particles that may have found their way into your lungs.
The eyes are also a common site of hay fever-related discomfort. As the allergen enters the eye, it triggers an immune response that leads to redness, swelling, and itchiness. Some people may also experience watery eyes as a result of hay fever.
Your throat can also become irritated by pollen. This is due to the body's overproduction of mucus and its inflammatory response, which creates a sensation of itchiness and tightness in the throat tissue.
When pollen enters the nasal cavity, it causes inflammation and swelling of the mucous membranes. This makes breathing difficult, resulting in nasal congestion or a stuffy nose.
Along with all the other symptoms of hay fever, it's common to experience fatigue or a general feeling of tiredness during an episode. This is due to the body spending a lot of energy trying to combat the allergen.
The swelling of the sinuses and airways caused by hay fever can cause headaches. The pain is often located in the forehead or temples but may spread to other areas of the head.
How Common Is Hay Fever?
Pollen is one of the most prevalent allergens in the United States, and hay fever is one of the most common conditions related to allergies. It's estimated that about 10-30% of people in the US suffer from hay fever every year.
For some people, the condition is a temporary problem; it's possible to have sensitivities to pollen in childhood but outgrow them as you age. For others, hay fever is an ongoing issue that requires regular management.
Individual cases of pollen allergies can also vary in severity. While many people experience hay fever, a smaller slice of that group will have a severe reaction to the allergen requiring more intensive treatment.
When Is Hay Fever Season?
Hay fever tends to flare up when outdoor pollen levels are at their highest. In most regions across North America, this happens on a seasonal basis in the spring, summer, and fall. Pollination periods typically last a couple of weeks and define what people call 'allergy season'.
But while fertilization waves are periodic, they don't all start simultaneously. Some species, like Sycamore and Oak trees, begin their reproductive processes in early spring, typically around February or March. On the other hand, common varieties of grasses usually start releasing pollen in April and May.
Depending on the specific type or types of pollen someone is allergic to, this may mean a brief flare-up of hay fever in the spring or an onslaught of symptoms that lasts several months.
It's also worth noting that the official start and end dates for pollen season can vary from region to region. Some climates are warmer than others and will therefore have earlier, later, or longer growing periods than their counterparts.
For example, states like Texas and Oklahoma maintain balmy temperatures year-round that allow plants to reproduce for longer. Colder regions such as Michigan and Maine tend to have shorter pollinating seasons by contrast.
When to See a Doctor
Although hay fever isn't considered a life-threatening condition, there are some points where you should seek medical attention. If your symptoms are particularly severe, for example, or if you're experiencing significant fatigue and difficulty breathing, it's best to call a doctor.
That same advice applies if your condition doesn't seem to be improving with over-the-counter (OTC) medications - or if it's occurring for longer than the typical pollen season in your area.
How Is Hay Fever Diagnosed?
If you see your doctor for hay fever symptoms, they'll likely begin by asking about your medical history and performing a physical examination. During this process, they'll examine your nose, throat, and eyes to determine if there are any signs of inflammation.
From there, it will be a matter of taking an allergy test to identify what allergens are causing your symptoms. You generally have two options for allergy testing: skin prick tests or at-home kits.
Skin prick tests are the most well-known type of allergy test. This involves your doctor pricking your skin's surface with a needle containing an allergen sample, then waiting to see if you exhibit a reaction. If you do, it indicates that you're allergic to the substance. Skin prick tests require a trip to the doctor's office and can be uncomfortable.
Wyndly's at-home test kits are a newer alternative to allergy testing, offering a more convenient way to discover what might trigger your symptoms. All you have to do is take a simple finger prick to take a small sample of blood and send it off by mail. Our allergy doctors will thoroughly review your test results and provide feedback within days.
If testing confirms that you do indeed have allergies, the next step forward will be learning how to prevent their symptoms from occurring. Exposure reduction is a great place to start - by making simple lifestyle changes to limit the contact you have with an allergen, you can drastically reduce its associated impact on your life. Consider the following tips to get started.
- Check pollen counts daily: Pollen levels fluctuate from season to season and day to day. Be mindful of this by regularly checking the pollen count for your region and avoiding outdoor activities when the levels are high.
- Wear a mask: On days when you must go outside despite high pollen counts, wearing a mask can help protect your respiratory system from unwanted allergens. N95s are best, but any face covering will help.
- Limit outdoor time to evening hours: Since pollen counts are highest in the morning, it's best to minimize your outdoor time during these hours. Avoid being outside between 5 am and 10 am if possible.
- Shower more frequently: After being outside, take a shower as soon as possible. This will help wash away any lingering allergens that could cause a flare-up.
- Wash clothes more frequently: It's also important to remove any allergens that may have latched onto your clothes or shoes. Wash them regularly, and use a dryer instead of line-drying.
- Trim tree branches, mow grass, and pull weeds: Keeping up with the yard work around your home can help reduce exposure if you're particularly sensitive to pollen. If possible, have someone else do your yard work or wear a mask while mowing or weeding.
- Keep windows closed: Pollen can enter your home through open windows and doors, so it's best to keep them shut when pollen counts are high. Running your A/C can also filter out any allergens in the air.
- Keep your home clean: Use a HEPA filter vacuum and dust often to reduce allergens in your home. Clean surfaces with a damp cloth and wash any fabric items, such as curtains or bedding, with hot water.
For some people, lifestyle changes alone won't be enough to treat hay fever symptoms. In these cases, medications are the next option.
Medications are a fast-acting, straightforward approach to allergy symptom reduction. They come in wide varieties and strengths, and in many cases, they can make living with hay fever more bearable. Below are some common types of medications used to treat allergy symptoms. While they are effective, most medications only provide short-term relief.
OTC medications can be bought at your local pharmacy or drugstore. They're accessible and affordable but limited in strength.
- Antihistamines: Antihistamines are the most commonly used OTC allergy medications. They block the body's histamine response, which is responsible for many of the symptoms associated with allergies.
- Nasal sprays: Nasal sprays can be used to reduce inflammation in the nasal passages. They are available over the counter and come in a variety of formulations.
- Eye drops: Eye drops reduce the symptoms of itchy, watery eyes. They come in a variety of formulas and typically contain antihistamines or decongestants to help provide relief.
Prescription medications are stronger than OTC options and can provide more effective relief from allergy symptoms. Common types like corticosteroids, antihistamines, and immunotherapy shots are available at a doctor's discretion.
Sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT) is a newer form of allergy treatment that is gaining popularity. SLIT involves taking an allergen extract or tablet under the tongue daily to help reduce allergy symptoms over time.
This therapy helps train the body to gradually become less sensitive to allergens, thus reducing future allergy symptoms.
It's generally considered a safe and effective treatment for those with hay fever, free of painful needles and regular trips to the doctor's office. Best of all, SLIT can be done at home and requires little effort or time investment.
Take Our Allergy Assessment
If you're looking for an effective and convenient way to manage your hay fever symptoms, Wyndly's sublingual immunotherapy could be a great option. It's safe, simple, and can be done from the comfort of your home.
Take our allergy assessment to determine if this treatment option is right for you.