Allergic rhinitis, commonly known as hay fever, is an allergic condition that can occur when you come into contact with certain allergens, such as pollen from trees, grasses and weeds.
If you have hay fever, you may notice that you develop a cough, itchy eyes, sneeze or a range of other symptoms when you breathe in pollen. Hay fever symptoms tend to develop in spring, summer, and fall, when pollen levels are at their highest.
Sometimes, hay fever isn’t caused by seasonal pollen and instead develops due to exposure to other allergens, such as pet hair or dust mites.
Dealing with hay fever can be a frustrating, stressful experience. Although there’s no cure for hay fever, there are a variety of steps that you can take to limit your exposure to allergens, as well as treatments that can help to relieve common symptoms.
Below, we’ve listed the symptoms of hay fever, as well as the allergens that may cause you to experience hay fever symptoms during spring, summer or fall. We’ve also explained how hay fever is diagnosed, as well as what you can do to treat and prevent its symptoms.
Hay fever has several common symptoms. If you have hay fever, you may experience one or several of the following symptoms:
The symptoms of hay fever can last for several weeks. Sometimes, hay fever symptoms can be quite severe. For example, you might sneeze often or experience sneeze attacks, in which you sneeze repeatedly and heavily.
Unlike a cold or the flu, hay fever isn’t caused by a virus and typically doesn’t cause symptoms such as fever. If you develop nasal discharge, it’s usually watery, thin and colorless, unlike the thick phlegm that can develop when you have a viral infection.
There are two different types of hay fever, or allergic rhinitis. Each has different causes and may affect you in different ways.
The first is seasonal hay fever, which is caused by an allergy to the pollen released by grasses, trees and weeds. When these plants flower, their pollen travels through the air. If you have hay fever, exposure to this pollen through your nose and mouth can trigger an allergic reaction.
In addition to pollen from plants, seasonal hay fever can also be triggered by exposure to mold spores, which can travel through the air and enter your respiratory system.
Seasonal hay fever is, as its name states, seasonal. Most people who have seasonal hay fever experience symptoms during spring, summer and fall, when levels of airborne pollen are usually at their highest.
Because levels of pollen differ throughout the year, you may notice that your hay fever is worse during certain parts of spring, summer or fall:
Many people with hay fever notice that they’re less likely to experience symptoms on damp or rainy days. This is because the rain tends to wash excess pollen to the ground, reducing your risk of breathing in airborne pollen particles.
The second type of hay fever is perennial hay fever, or perennial allergic rhinitis. Perennial hay fever can develop year-round and is caused by exposure to non-pollen allergens, such as hair or dander (tiny, shed particles of skin) from pets, dust mites or certain types of mold.
You may notice perennial hay fever symptoms after you spend time around a pet, or in a dusty or damp area. If your perennial hay fever is caused by mold, you may notice symptoms during rainy, humid weather.
Both forms of hay fever are allergic reactions that are caused by your immune system reacting to the presence of an allergen.
If you have hay fever, your body will produce antibodies when it identifies an allergen, such as seasonal pollen or pet dander. Even though this substance might be harmless, your body will view it as harmful and target it via your immune system.
When you breathe in an allergen, your immune system will respond to it by releasing immune response compounds such as histamine. These cause the swelling, itching, blocked nose and other symptoms that characterize hay fever.
Not all people experience hay fever symptoms when they’re exposed to allergens. According to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology, roughly 7.8 percent of people in the United States over the age of 18 have some form or allergic rhinitis, or hay fever.
If you think that you have hay fever, it’s best to talk to your healthcare provider. They can diagnose hay fever by performing a physical exam, talking to you about your medical history and, if necessary, performing an allergy test.
Several different tests are used to identify and diagnose allergies, including hay fever. To check if you have hay fever, your healthcare provider may recommend:
These tests can help to accurately diagnose hay fever and, if positive, assist in identifying the allergens that trigger your hay fever symptoms.
It’s best not to rely on at-home allergy testing kits sold at drug stores to diagnose allergies such as hay fever. Although these kits are readily available, their results aren’t very accurate and can often produce false positives.
Hay fever can range in severity. If your symptoms are severe and impact your day-to-day life, your healthcare provider may recommend treating your hay fever by making changes to your lifestyle and using medication.
The most common medications used to treat hay fever are antihistamines, decongestants and nasal steroids.
Antihistamines work by blocking the effects of histamine — a chemical that’s released by your body in response to allergic reactions.
Histamine is responsible for helping your immune system get rid of allergens. As your body ramps up histamine production, you may notice that your nose starts to become blocked or itchy, and that you sneeze or tear up more easily.
By blocking the effects of histamine, antihistamines help to control the symptoms of hay fever and make dealing with your allergies easier.
Several different antihistamines are used to treat hay fever and other common allergies. Your healthcare provider may recommend a prescription antihistamine such as azelastine (a nasal spray sold as Astelin®) or olopatadine (Patanase®).
Over-the-counter antihistamines for treating hay fever include loratadine (Claritin®), fexofenadine (Allegra®) and cetirizine (Zyrtec®). If your hay fever affects your eyes, your healthcare provider may prescribe antihistamine eye drops such as ketotifen (Alaway®, Zaditor®) to control your symptoms.
Antihistamines can cause side effects, including drowsiness, dizziness and dry mouth. It’s best to discuss these with your healthcare provider before using any medication to treat hay fever.
Decongestants work by relieving nasal congestion, meaning they’ll help to clear your nose and allow you to breathe easier if your nose becomes blocked or stuffy after you come into contact with pollen, pet hair or another allergen that triggers hay fever.
One of the most common decongestants is pseudoephedrine (Sudafed®).
As with other medications, decongestants can cause certain side effects. They can also become less effective over time and worsen hay fever symptoms if overused. To avoid side effects, it’s important to only use decongestants as recommended.
Nasal corticosteroids help to reduce the inflammation that can develop in your nose if you have hay fever, controlling swelling and making it easier for you to breathe after you’re exposed to an allergen.
Your healthcare provider may recommend using a nasal corticosteroid if you often develop nasal itching or a runny nose due to hay fever.
Some nasal corticosteroids are available as over-the-counter medications, such as fluticasone (Flonase®) and triamcinolone (Nasacort®). Others, such as budesonide (Rhinocort®) and mometasone (Nasonex®), require a prescription.
In certain cases, your healthcare provider may prescribe a nasal spray that contains a corticosteroid and an antihistamine, such as Dymista®, which contains azelastine and fluticasone.
Like other medications, nasal corticosteroids can cause side effects that you’ll need to discuss with your healthcare provider before use.
Although less common than antihistamines, decongestants and nasal corticosteroids, several other medications are also used to treat hay fever symptoms:
Depending on the severity of your hay fever and your response to treatments, your healthcare provider may prescribe one or several medications. Use your medication as prescribed by your healthcare provider. If you don’t notice any improvements, talk to them before making any changes.
Your healthcare provider may recommend that you start taking your hay fever medication before the start of allergy season. This may help to prevent or limit the release of histamine and other chemicals that contribute to hay fever symptoms, making your symptoms easier to deal with.
Most home remedies aren’t effective at stopping the symptoms of hay fever. However, there are several things that you can do to reduce the severity of your symptoms:
Hay fever isn’t contagious, meaning you don’t need to worry about spreading it to your friends, family or partner. You can also use the following prevention tactics to reduce your exposure to allergens and more effectively manage hay fever during allergy season:
If you think you have hay fever, talking to a healthcare provider can help you learn more about your allergens and the treatment options that are available to you.
Consult with a licensed healthcare provider now to discuss your symptoms and learn more about what you can do to treat and manage hay fever.
If appropriate, the provider can write you a prescription on the spot and send it directly to a local pharmacy of your choice, allowing you to get the relief you need fast, all without having to go to an office.