Hay fever, also called allergic rhinitis, causes cold-like signs and symptoms, such as a runny nose, itchy eyes, congestion, sneezing and sinus pressure. But unlike a cold, hay fever isn't caused by a virus. Hay fever is caused by an allergic response to outdoor or indoor allergens, such as pollen, dust mites or pet dander.
Hay fever can make you miserable and affect your performance at work or school and interfere with leisure activities. But you don't have to put up with annoying symptoms. Learning how to avoid triggers and finding the right treatment can make a big difference.
Hay fever signs and symptoms usually start immediately after you're exposed to a specific allergy-causing substance (allergen) and can include:
Your hay fever symptoms may start or worsen at a particular time of year, triggered by tree pollen, grasses or weeds, which all bloom at different times. If you're sensitive to indoor allergens, such as dust mites, cockroaches, mold or pet dander, you may have year-round symptoms. Many people have allergy symptoms all year long, but their symptoms get worse during certain times of the year.
The effects of age
Although hay fever can begin at any age, you're most likely to develop it during childhood or early adulthood. It's common for the severity of hay fever reactions to change over the years. For most people, hay fever symptoms tend to diminish slowly, often over decades.
Signs and symptoms can be different. Here's how to tell which one's causing your symptoms:
See your doctor if:
Many people — especially children — get used to hay fever symptoms. But getting the right treatment can reduce irritating symptoms. In some cases, treatment may help prevent more-serious allergic conditions, such as asthma or eczema.
During a process called sensitization, your immune system mistakenly identifies a harmless airborne substance as something harmful. Your immune system then starts producing antibodies to this harmless substance. The next time you come in contact with the substance, these antibodies recognize it and signal your immune system to release chemicals, such as histamine, into your bloodstream. These immune system chemicals cause a reaction that leads to the irritating signs and symptoms of hay fever.
Hay fever doesn't mean you're allergic to hay. Despite its name, hay fever is almost never triggered by hay, and it doesn't cause a fever.
Your doctor will ask detailed questions about your personal and family medical history, your signs and symptoms, and your usual way of treating them. Your doctor will also perform a physical examination to look for additional clues about the causes of your signs and symptoms. He or she may also recommend one or both of the following tests:
Problems that may be associated with hay fever include:
There's no proven way to avoid getting hay fever in the first place. Doctors think reducing a child's exposure to allergy-causing substances, such as dust mites and animal dander, may help delay or prevent hay fever — but the evidence isn't clear yet.
If you have hay fever, the best thing you can do is to take steps to lessen your exposure to the allergens that cause your symptoms. Take allergy medications before you're exposed to allergens, as directed by your doctor.
While there isn't much evidence about how well they work, a number of people try alternative treatments for hay fever. These include:
It's not possible to completely avoid allergens, but you can reduce your symptoms by taking some steps to limit your exposure to them. It helps to know exactly what you're allergic to so that you can avoid your specific triggers.
The following factors may increase your risk of developing hay fever: