Hay fever: A sneeze on the breeze

A woman stands in a garden, her hands on her hips

If sneezes and coughs punctuate your springtime speech, you may be suffering from hay fever.

The sun is shining. The grass is green. The flowers are blooming.

But for many people, these wonders of spring take a toll on the senses, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Symptoms such as itchy eyes, nose and throat; coughing; and sneezing get in the way of their outdoor enjoyment.


The combination of nasal congestion, sneezing and runny nose due to allergies is officially known as allergic rhinitis. The term hay fever is actually a misnomer, since hay is not a common allergen and no fever is present. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI), the name originated with English doctors treating people with grass pollen allergies.

Hay fever is caused by an allergy to the pollen of trees, grasses or weeds or the spores of molds.

The nose knows

When airborne particles of powdery pollen enter the nose of a person with allergies, the body releases chemicals, including histamines, which cause the irritation and inflammation of the eyes, nose, lungs and skin.

If you experience these symptoms regularly, see your doctor or an allergist. Your healthcare provider will consider factors like the history of your illness, your home and work environment, your diet, and your living habits as part of the diagnosis. He or she may also perform skin tests to help pinpoint which allergens cause you the most problems.

Clearing the pathways

There are several ways to treat hay fever symptoms, according to the AAAAI. The most obvious way is to avoid prolonged exposure to pollen. After gardening or mowing the lawn, wash your hair, face and hands and change clothes to help limit your exposure.

A variety of medications can also help control your symptoms. They include:

Antihistamines. These medicines combat the effects of histamines, one of the most important contributors to the body's allergic response. Some antihistamines can cause drowsiness, so you may want to check for a nondrowsy formula. Antihistamines, which are available in pill, nasal-spray and liquid form, are not as effective for nasal congestion as they are for other rhinitis symptoms, such as itching, sneezing and runny nose, according to the AAAAI.

Nasal corticosteroid sprays. These medicines are the first-line treatment for allergic rhinitis, according to UpToDate. They help stop inflammation and may improve itching, sneezing, runny nose and congestion.

Decongestants. According to the AAAAI, these medicines may help when other treatments don't ease congestion. Decongestants are available in pill, nasal-spray and liquid form. The AAAAI reports decongestant nasal sprays should not be used for more than three or four days in a row.

Your doctor can help you choose the best treatment or treatments for your symptoms. He or she may recommend an over-the-counter medication or advise you to take a prescription drug instead.

Be aware that medicines for allergic rhinitis may have side effects. Your doctor or pharmacist can tell you what to expect.

If medications don't relieve your symptoms, your doctor may recommend regular allergy shots, which slowly desensitize your body to the allergen.

Reviewed 9/6/2022

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