Hay fever is an illness that causes cold-like signs and symptoms, such as a runny nose, itchy eyes, congestion, sneezing and headache and sinus pressure. But unlike a cold, hay fever is not caused by a virus.
Hay fever is caused by an allergic response to outdoor or indoor allergens, such as pollen and dust mites, or tiny flecks of skin and saliva shed by cats, dogs and other animals with fur or feathers. It can affect your performance at work or school and generally interfere with your life.
To manage, one has to learn to avoid triggers and find the right treatment. If you have hay fever, the best thing to do is 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.
- Hay fever signs and symptoms can include:
- Runny nose and nasal congestion.
- Watery, itchy, red eyes.
- Itchy nose, roof of mouth or throat.
- Swollen, blue-coloured skin under the eyes.
- Postnasal drip.
Signs and symptoms may start or worsen at a particular time of year. Triggers include:
- Tree pollen, which is common in early spring.
- Grass pollen, which is common in late spring and summer.
- Ragweed pollen, which is common in autumn.
- Dust mites, cockroaches and dander from pets can occur yearround (perennial). Symptoms to indoor allergens might worsen in winter, when houses are closed up.
- Spoors from indoor and outdoor fungi and moulds are considered both seasonal and perennial.
It may be difficult to tell whether you have common cold or hay fever since the signs and symptoms can be similar. Hay fever normally presents with runny nose with thin, watery discharge and no fever. It begins immediately after exposure to allergens and lasts for as long as you are exposed to allergens. The common cold, on the other hand, presents with a runny nose with watery or thick yellow discharge, body aches and low-grade fever. It starts 1-3 days after exposure to a cold virus and lasts 3-7 days.
When you have hay fever, your immune system identifies a harmless airborne substance as harmful. Your immune system then produces antibodies to this harmless substance.
The next time you come in contact with the substance, these antibodies signal your immune system to release chemicals such as histamine into your bloodstream, which cause a reaction that leads to the signs and symptoms of hay fever.
The following factors can increase your risk of developing hay fever:
- Exposure to secondary cigarette smoke in first year of life.
- Having a blood relative (such as a parent or sibling) with allergies or asthma.
- Living or working in an environment that constantly exposes you to allergens — such as animal dander.
- Hay fever and the symptoms can lead to the following complications:
- Reduced quality of life. Hay fever can interfere with your enjoyment of activities and cause you to be less productive.
- Poor sleep/insomnia. The symptoms can keep you awake or make it hard to stay asleep, which can lead to fatigue and a general feeling of being unwell.
- Worsening asthma. Hay fever can worsen signs and symptoms of asthma, such as coughing and wheezing.
- Sinusitis. Prolonged sinus congestion due to hay fever may increase your susceptibility to sinusitis — an infection or inflammation of the membrane that lines the sinuses.
- Ear infection. In children, hay fever often is a factor in middle ear infection (otitis media).
Consult your doctor who will then take a full medical and exposure history, perform a physical examination and possibly recommend one or both of the following tests:
Skin prick test. You’re watched for an allergic reaction after small amounts of material that can trigger allergies are pricked into the skin of your arm or upper back.
If you’re allergic, you develop a raised bump (hive) at the site of that allergen. Allergy blood test. A blood sample is sent to a lab to measure your immune system’s response to a specific allergen.
Also called the radioallergosorbent test (Rast), this test measures the amount of allergy-causing antibodies in your bloodstream, known as immunoglobulin E antibodies.
It’s best to limit your exposure to substances that cause your hay fever as much as possible. If your hay fever isn’t too severe, over-the-counter medications may be enough to relieve symptoms.
For worse symptoms, you may need prescription medications. Many people get the best relief from a combination of allergy medications.
You might need to try a few before you find what works best.
Read More of Dr Dulcy’s breakdown of Hay Fever and how to treat it on today’s The Citizen.