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What is Hay Fever?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Hay fever, more properly known as allergic rhinitis, is an irritation of the mucus membranes of the eyes and upper respiratory tract, leading to a variety of unpleasant symptoms. Numerous people suffer from hay fever, especially during seasons of heavy pollen, which is one of the leading causes of hay fever. Most people are able to treat their symptoms with dietary changes and mild medications, but sometimes the attention of a medical professional is needed to address the problem. If hay fever symptoms are severe or they continue year round, patients should consider seeing an allergy specialist.

The term “hay fever” is a bit of a misnomer, and is probably related to reports of itchiness and irritation during haying season. However, these allergic reactions were more probably caused by flowers in the field than hay itself, and the skin irritation would have been from the sharp ends of cut grasses. Some people are allergic to specific grasses which are used for hay, such as rye, but the majority of people develop hay fever in response to pollen, fungi, and dander.

Like other allergies, hay fever starts with exposure to the allergen, and there appears to be a higher incidence of hay fever in the First World than in developing nations. The body's immune system decides that the allergen is a threat, and develops antibodies to it. When exposed again, the immune system reacts, creating the miserable symptoms associated with hay fever. These symptoms include a runny nose, weepy eyes, skin conditions, congestion, sneezing, and itching.

Treatment for hay fever typically starts with recommendations to change lifestyle and diet slightly. A high fiber diet can help to mitigate the symptoms, as can avoiding areas of heavy pollen and using hypoallergenic products. If these changes do not solve the problem, a doctor may recommend medications such as anti-inflammatories and decongestants. In extreme cases of hay fever, an allergy specialist may perform skin testing to determine what, exactly, the patient is allergic to.

For people who experience hay fever, avoiding pollen is an excellent way to prevent it. Many cities list weekly pollen counts to alert people to potentially high levels of pollen. Nasal rinses can also help to keep the sinuses clear, as can a prescription for preventative hay fever medication which will help reduce the symptoms before they start to set in. It is important to receive treatment and diagnosis for hay fever, because it can develop into asthma if left untreated, which is an undesired complication.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon12619 — On May 10, 2008

What should we do to prevent Allergic Rhinitis ?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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