Hay fever can flare up to any person anytime of the year depending on the substance an individual is allergic to. The classic sneezing, stuffed up nose, itchy, watery eyes and scratchy cough, are part of the seasonal routine for many people who suffer from hay fever. Formally known as allergic rhinitis, hay fever is an inflammation of the nose, which is caused by an overactive immune system. The plant particles floating around in the air, such as pollen, grass or dust act as allergens which stimulate an allergic reaction resulting in the usual sneezing, coughing and runny nose symptoms. While hay fever is typically seasonal, flaring up for individuals during the months of the year where there is lots of new plant growth, grass is being cut and flowers are starting to bloom, it can also occur as a result of an allergy to pet hair, dust or mold, and therefore affects some people all year round. Regardless of what triggers your reaction, or the symptoms you experience, there is a lot to understand about this common allergy.
Allergies are immune system responses that are triggered as a safety measure for the body. The immune system is like our internal shield and protector and is designed to eliminate foreign invaders and prevent unwanted attacks in an effort to maintain the integrity and function of all bodily systems. It is the immune system that fights off the common cold or helps you get rid of your sore throat, and it is also the immune system that is targeted when you get vaccinations for diseases such as Polio or Yellow Fever. Likewise, it is the immune system at work when we talk about allergies.
An allergy occurs when the body is exposed to something that it feels is an invader, or could be a danger to the body, and the immune system attacks it. This is known as the initial exposure, and the immune system now has a blueprint of what this foreign invader looks like. From that time onward, the body will recognize this invader and will always see it as dangerous, and will elicit an allergic response. The outcome of said response is where you see things such as a runny nose and itchy eyes, a rash, or hives, or in more severe cases, anaphylaxis, where the throat closes off, and the airway is restricted. For example, in the case of peanut allergies, the body has at some point been exposed to peanuts and it interpreted them as foreign and dangerous, and now every time peanuts enter the system, the body responds harshly, eliciting an allergic response. In this case, for many people, the response is anaphylaxis. While allergies occur at varying degrees of severity, the premise behind them is the same: the body interprets something as foreign and dangerous and attacks it as an invader in an effort to protect the body.
For many individuals, the development of hay fever is genetically based, and simply runs in the family. Other people develop it in the same way as detailed above, whereby the body at some point interprets a particle as foreign and then has a negative reaction to it each time, constituting the formation of an allergy.
Research has also shown that the development or non-development of hay fever is affected by environmental exposures in childhood, in which studies have indicated that children who grow up on a farm, or who have early exposure to the allergens, such as hay, grass and pet hairs, are less likely to develop allergies later in life.
For most though, the allergy develops like all other allergies: based on the antigen and antibody response component of our immune system. The immune system has several markers for diseases, viruses, and illnesses. When we are exposed to a certain virus or disease through means such as particles in the air, or come in contact with another affected person, the immune system is activated and responds with antibodies. These antibodies are created by being previously exposed to the antigens of said virus or disease, or via vaccination. Each invader that affects the body has its own antigens. In the case of hay fever, these antigens have been exposed to the body before and the antibody response that follows causes the symptoms we have come to know as hay fever.
The only way to avoid having an allergic reaction is to avoid the allergen that causes it. In the case of hay fever, this means avoiding dust, pollen, pet hair or whatever else may be the trigger, and most importantly, is to find out what your triggers are. Given that there are many potential allergens leading to your hay fever reaction, avoiding them all can be easier said than done, especially since for many people, even going outside is enough to trigger a reaction. There are certainly ways, however, to mitigate the allergic outcome: make sure that you stay inside when pollen and grass are in the air, such as just after the lawns have been mowed, or just after harvest, and avoid petting cats and dogs.
Be sure to wash your hands properly after being around animals or outside and try not to touch your face or rub your eyes regularly if you are exposed to allergens. If it appears as if you are regularly having symptoms, without an explicable cause, you may consider looking for mold in your house or workplace. Mold grows in areas that remain moist, such as around sinks or low to the ground, and of course is much more likely to appear in areas where there is a moist climate, stagnant water or where there is inadequate ventilation. Be aware of the occurrence of mold, as it releases microscopic spores into the air which you likely can’t see, but which could be causing your symptoms.
Another consideration when it comes to reducing symptoms and reactions is using hypoallergenic products. If for example, dust is your trigger, it can be hard to eliminate all of this from your house or workplace: it remains in the carpet, on unused surfaces, in ceiling fans and vents and along the corners of the floorboards. Using hypoallergenic soaps, detergents and cleaning products can be a great way to help reduce regularly occurring symptoms and reactions, and these products are also much better for the earth and less harsh on your skin.
While the best option is prevention, during certain seasons or times of the year when it is impossible to avoid allergens, you will likely want to have some method of treating hay fever so you can get relief from the symptoms and discomfort. There are several products on the market, but most fall under the same broad categories. The first of these categories is antihistamines.
Histamines are the chemicals your body releases in response to allergens such as dust or pollen. When these chemicals are released, they are what cause the symptoms we know as hay fever, leading to a runny nose, sniffles, sneezing and red itchy eyes. If we are able to stop the release of the histamine, using things such as antihistamines, there is a reduction in symptoms and the allergic reaction slowly diminishes. Most over the counter, non-prescription allergy medications you get from the chemist, fall under this category and are available in several forms, including eye and nose drops, pills, liquid and nasal sprays. And while these drugs are great at doing their job and reducing the symptoms, they still have their side effects, the most common of which is drowsiness. They can also cause dizziness, difficulty concentrating, nausea, and vomiting or blurred vision.
Often prescribed alongside antihistamines are decongestants. These non-prescription treatment options simply act to help reduce the congestion within the body’s elimination pathways, which is responsible for the typical allergy symptoms such as stuffy nose, blocked sinuses and a build-up of phlegm and mucus within the chest. For many people, doctors or pharmacists will recommend taking decongestants to eliminate the congestion that has already built up from the allergic reaction, and then taking anti-histamines to prevent further congestion or problems.
The next category of drugs that can help fight hay fever and allergies is steroids. Steroids, also known as corticosteroids, are designed to help fight inflammation. They are often used in cases of more severe allergies, or in compromised persons whose allergic reactions could lead to complications of an already existing disease or illness, such as asthma or autoimmune diseases. They are also the main method of medication prescribed when allergic reactions involve hives, a rash, or inflammation within the body, such as within the chest or digestive tract. They are available as creams, sprays, or inhalers, as is the case with asthma medication. While steroids are extremely effective, they must be taken regularly, every day usually, even when the allergy symptoms are not present, and typically the user must be on them for one to two weeks before they start to see their effect.
While hay fever may seem like a common occurrence, there is a lot you can do to help reduce your symptoms and keep your allergic reaction in check and with the right environment and precautions, you may be able to eliminate most of those nasty outbreaks of watery eyes and stuffy nose!