You likely hear the term hay fever a lot, but do you know what it means?
“Hay fever” is the common term for a medical condition called allergic rhinitis. Ironically, hay fever is not a fever and rarely involves hay.
However, most people are familiar with this term; few people say “my allergic rhinitis is terrible in the spring!”
If you want to beat your allergies this season, you need to start by understanding the causes and symptoms of hay fever. You also need to know what makes it worse, and what can make it better.
With this knowledge, you’ll have a better chance a getting through the season without hay fever!
What is Hay Fever?
Hay fever is marked by sneezing, runny and stuffy noses, and itchy eyes, mouth, or skin. Sufferers can also have symptoms of fatigue, largely because they are sleeping poorly from nasal issues and sneezing. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, the condition effects more than 40 to 60 million Americans.
So, what causes hay fever?
The most common culprits are outdoor allergens, especially pollen from grasses, trees, weeds, wild flowers, and other plants.
However, indoor allergens can be a trigger for hay fever. Pet dander can cause allergic rhinitis, as can dust mites, mold, cigarette smoke, and perfume. There is also scientific evidence that diesel fuel is more likely to cause allergy problems than other types of fuels, although the connection remains unclear.
Allergy suffers are essentially victims of their own immune system. When an allergen (the allergy-causing substance) is inhaled, the immune system reacts, sending disease-fighting chemicals to the nasal passages, sinus, eyelids, and other areas. While the reaction is meant to protect your body, the immune system is causing the runny nose, sneezing, and itchy eyes, all in an effort to fight a substance that is essentially harmless.
When Does Hay Fever Occur?
Many people assume that hay fever occurs exclusively in the spring. While symptoms are often strong in the spring, the condition can plague people all throughout the year, even during winter in cold climates.
Spring is often hay fever season for many allergy sufferers. This is mostly due to pollen released from trees and other plants. To reproduce, many plants rely on the breeze to spread their pollen. To blow in the wind and spread as far as possible, pollen needs to be extremely small and light. As the pollen blows in the wind, people will often inhale it, triggering their allergies.
Flowers are often thought of as causes for hay fever, but they rely on bees and other insects to spread their pollen, rather than the wind. These plants have pollen that is quite dense, clumpy, sticky, and heavy.
So, it’s not the fields of flowers that you should avoid, it’s actually the woods!
Pollen can travel an incredible distance, especially when the wind is high. While most pollen will only travel a few hundred meters from its source, it’s not unheard of for pollen to travel as far as a thousand miles.
The lesson? You don’t have to be near the woods or prairies to suffer from hay fever, as the pollen can easily make its way to you.
Understanding “Super Pollen”
There’s a term that you’ll often see when researching hay fever. Although it might be overly sensational, “super pollen” is a term used to describe the combination of hay fever and outdoor air pollution, especially diesel fuel.
When pollen mixes with diesel fuel exhaust particles, it’s believed that the material becomes stickier and does not disperse into the atmosphere as quickly. This means the allergens are not only more prevalent, they stay around for a longer period. Super pollen is a strong concern in the UK, and could become an issue for Americans as well.
Air Pollution and Hay Fever: Is there a Connection?
What about other forms of air pollution?
Are there factors other than diesel exhaust that contribute to someone’s hay fever?
Is it possible that regular gasoline exhaust, which is the standard in the U.S., also adds to hay fever problems?
What about smoke from tobacco, industry, or even wildfires?
To find the answers, we need to look at scientific studies...
One study found that hay fever is connected to poor air quality. This cross-sectional study, from researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, analyzed past surveys on respiratory issues and looked at historical data for air quality, which included information for pollutants, carbon monoxide, nitrous dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter.
Lining up the two data sets, researchers discovered that “improvements in air quality are associated with decreased prevalence of both hay fever and sinusitis.” (Sinusitis is an inflammation of sinus tissue; it essentially means blocked sinuses.)
A study from South Africa seems to support the “super pollen” theory as well as the theory that air pollution contributes to allergies.
The study analyzed the presence of truck traffic. (By “trucks, it’s fair to assume they mean diesel-engine semi trucks, although the study mentions both petrol and diesel.)
The research asked school children questions about “truck traffic” near their home, as well as the presence of allergic rhinitis. Researchers found that the "results support the hypothesis that traffic related pollution plays a role in the prevalence of allergic rhinitis symptoms in children residing in the area."
A New Side Effect of Pollen: Bad Grades?
The common side effects of hay fever include sneezing, runny noses, and watery eyes.
Could we add poor academic performance to the list?
According to research out of Norway, pollen allergies may have a negative effect on exam results.
Simon Bensnes of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology's Department studied the connection between pollen levels and exam scores and found that when pollen is higher, scores drop among some students. The author of the study speculates that people with hay fever may also have reduced performance during work, which could, in theory, lead to lower average pay and fewer promotional opportunities.
Are There Factors That Make Hay Fever Worse?
Is it possible that certain habits or other factors are making your hay fever worse than it needs to be?
According to Prevention, a magazine dedicated to health and well-being topics, there are a few common habits that could be making your hay fever even worse.
Stress, for example, could create more allergy symptoms. It’s possible that stress stimulates blood hormones that cause allergic reactions, contributing to the frequency and severity of allergies.
Over-consumption of alcohol could also be a factor. It’s believed that bacteria and yeast in alcohol could produce histamines that lead to allergy symptoms. When your symptoms are acting up, it might be wise to reduce or eliminate alcohol consumption.
The presence of some houseplants could also make your allergies worse by adding more pollen to your indoor air.
It’s also possible that swimming in chlorine pools contributes to enhanced allergies, and tobacco smoke, including first and secondhand, could be responsible for more allergy symptoms as well.
Alleviating Hay Fever: How to Have Fewer, Lighter Symptoms
So, what can you do to relieve allergic reactions in yourself, a loved one, or your children?
Drugs and other treatments are common, but by taking strategic measures to reduce exposure to pollen and other allergens, you’ll make life easier and more comfortable for everyone.
First, it must be said that discussing the issue with a doctor or medical professional should always be the first step. Your doctor can help you determine if you are allergic to certain substances, and whether treatments and other advanced measures are needed, including both prescription and non-prescription measures. Whether you are taking medication or not, you can use these steps to reduce your symptoms...
Wash Clothes and Sheets in Hot Water
An article published by WebMD.com discusses the benefits of washing your clothes in hot water to remove allergens. It says that water should be 140 degrees F to kill 100% of the dust mites found on clothing and sheets. Hot water also removes pet dander and pollen more thoroughly than warm or cool water. Steam-cleaning can also be as effective as hot water.
Take a Shower Before Bed
At the end of the day, your body and hair can be covered in pollen, so if you go straight to bed without rinsing off, that pollen, as well as other allergens, will stay with you. Taking a shower before bed will help remove many of the allergens that are giving you trouble and will help reduce your overall exposure. Be sure to rinse thoroughly and wash your hair or beard, especially if either are particularly long.
Wear an Air Filter Mask When Mowing, Landscaping, or GardeningThe mere act of mowing the lawn tosses a lot of dust, debris, and pollen into the air, making the chore almost unbearable for some allergy sufferers.
However, you can reduce your exposure by wearing a filtering mask while you do outside chores. If pollen and allergies cause eye irritation, you can also consider using a pair of goggles to keep particles out of your eyes. You might look silly to the neighbors, but you’ll feel much throughout the day!
Avoid the Outdoors During Peak Pollen Times
Certain seasons, as well as particular times of the day, can be better or worse on your allergies. According to Pollen.com, the highest pollen counts usually occur between 5:00 am and 10:00 am, so if you can avoid outdoor activities during these times, you’ll likely feel better.
A lot will depend on your specific region, but April and May are often the worst spring allergies months for tree pollen, while June and July (summer allergies) bring seasonal grass pollen. Ragweed, however, starts in the late summer and usually lasts into October. This weed is often found in cities because it can grow fast and thrive from small cracks in concrete.
Drive with Windows Up
Driving with the windows down gives you fresh air, but it can also contribute to your allergy symptoms. Even if you are traveling a short distance, keep the windows up to avoid exposing your lungs to pollen and other allergens. Keeping the windows up also keeps pollen from landing in your car, preventing future issues.
Clean the HVAC Vents, Replace Filters
Roughly once a year, have your HVAC vents cleaned. This has less to do with pollen and more with dust and indoor pet dander, but it can still remove many of the allergens that cause or contribute to hay fever. Replacing your HVAC air filter on a regular basis is primarily intended to maintain the quality of your home furnace, but can also ensure less dust is distributed throughout your home.
Keep Pets out of the Bedroom
Like a few of our suggestions, this one isn’t related to pollen, but to other factors that can make allergies worse. If you have pets in the home, you may enjoy having them in the bedroom. This provides a sense of companionship and, if it’s a dog, may even make you feel safer while you sleep. However, the pet’s dander is likely contributing to your allergies, making it harder to enjoy a good night’s rest. It might seem like a drastic step to some pet owners, but if you suffer from hay fever, you should seriously consider removing the pets from the bedroom to reduce your allergy symptoms.
Internal Causes of Allergic Rhinitis
We’ve talked a lot about various factors that cause allergic symptoms and hay fever, but what about personal factors?
Why is it that one person develops allergic rhinitis while another does not?
Let’s look at some of the personalized factors that may be causing the development of allergic rhinitis.
The first factor is genetics: a person with allergies is more likely to have children who also have allergies. There’s a theory that a single genetic glitch may be the cause of most people’s allergies, including allergies to pollen.
There is scientific data supporting the thought that food allergies are passed through genetics, so it’s not unfounded to think that airborne allergies could function in this way as well.
According to an article published in Therapeutics and Clinical Risk Management, “there is clear evidence to support the concept that allergic diseases are influenced by genetic predisposition and environmental exposure.”
Determining the environmental causes of allergy development can be tricky. It’s tricky because you need to separate allergy development compared to allergy symptoms.
For example, you might find that allergies are higher among people in urban areas, but it’s possible the same rate of people, all over the country, have the same allergies.
Urban dwellers are simply exposed to the allergens more often, skewing the data.
Allergies are, in fact, more common in urban areas than rural areas, so where you live could be a factor.
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