Hay Fever

What is hay fever?

An allergy is your body’s reaction to a substance that is normally harmless. With allergies, your body sees the substance as harmful or foreign and your immune system reacts to the substance. Substances that can cause an allergic reaction are called allergens.

Hay fever, also called allergic rhinitis, is a type of allergic reaction to pollen. Pollen is small particles in the air from grasses, weeds, or trees. Hay fever may happen any time of the year, but most often happens in the spring, summer, or fall.

What is the cause?

Your immune system is your body’s natural defense against bacteria, viruses, and other foreign substances. Before you can have a reaction to a particular substance, your immune system must first be sensitized to it. Usually this means your body has to have been exposed to the substance at least once before. Once sensitized, your body will react every time you have contact with the substance.

Some pollen is around only during certain seasons, for example, ragweed in the fall and pollen from grasses, weeds, and trees in the spring and summer. Because flower pollen is carried by insects and does not get into the air, flower pollen does not cause hay fever.

Hay fever is more common in people with other conditions such as asthma or eczema. It tends to run in families. You may start having hay fever at any age. Children who are around tobacco smoke may be more likely to have allergies and asthma.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may include:

  • Sneezing
  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Itchy nose, throat, or ears
  • Ear pressure or fullness
  • Red, itchy, watery eyes
  • Headache
  • Coughing

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you. Tests may include:

  • Blood tests
  • A skin prick test, which uses a drop of allergen extract (liquid) put under your skin with a needle

How is it treated?

Some symptoms are so mild that they don’t need treatment. Several kinds of medicines may be used to treat hay fever:

  • Decongestants reduce swelling in your nose and sinuses. They may also lessen the amount of mucus made by your nose. If you use decongestants more often than directed, your stuffy nose may get worse. Do not give decongestants to children under the age of 4. If your child is between the ages of 4 and 6, ask your healthcare provider before giving decongestants.
  • Antihistamines block the effect of histamine. Histamine is a chemical your body makes when you have an allergic reaction. Do not give antihistamines to children under the age of 4. If your child is between the ages of 4 and 6, ask your healthcare provider before giving antihistamines.
  • Nasal steroid sprays help reduce the irritation and swelling in your body. By lessening the swelling, you will have fewer symptoms and be able to breathe better.
  • Cromolyn nasal spray can help prevent the body’s reaction to inhaled allergens. It may take 2 to 4 weeks for it to start working. Also, it is more helpful if you use it before you are around to allergens. It is available without a prescription.
  • Your healthcare provider may recommend eye drops for itchy, watery eyes.
  • Immunotherapy is a type of treatment that includes shots or pills containing small amounts of the substances you are allergic to. It may take several months or years of treatment for your symptoms to decrease.

If you have symptoms that come and go, you may be able to take a nonprescription decongestants or antihistamines. Ask your healthcare provider or pharmacist which medicine is best for you and how to use it. Nonprescription medicine may have side effects. Read the label and take as directed.

Your healthcare provider may also recommend eye drops to relieve your symptoms.

How can I take care of myself?

Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider. In addition:

  • Try to avoid the things you are allergic to:
    • Wear a mask over your nose and mouth if you have symptoms when you do yard work or housecleaning. (You can buy masks at the drug store.)
    • Vacuum your carpets, curtains, and soft furniture often. Clean your uncarpeted floors with a damp mop or cloth.
    • Stay away from trees grass as much as you can during pollen season. Do not exercise outside when pollen levels are high.
    • Keep doors and windows shut during pollen season. Use an air conditioner, if you have one, in your house and car. Do not use a window or attic fan.
    • Shower or bathe each evening to remove pollens or other allergens from your hair and skin.
  • Use artificial-tears eyedrops to help wash out your eyes. Antihistamine eyedrops may help, too. You can get these eyedrops at the store without a prescription.
  • You may find that nasal saline rinsing helps. It can remove dirt, dust, and pollen from your nose, as well as help to loosen thick mucus. This can help relieve symptoms of hay fever. You can buy a nasal saline rinse kit at the store, or you can make your own:
    • Mix 8 ounces of water (1 cup) with 1/2 teaspoon of non-iodized table salt and a pinch of baking soda. It’s best to use lukewarm distilled, filtered or previously boiled water. Having the right mix helps prevent irritation.
  • If you smoke, try to quit. Cigarette smoke can make hay fever symptoms worse. Also try to stay away from others who are smoking.

Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup. Keep all appointments for provider visits or tests.

How can I help prevent hay fever?

There is no sure way to prevent allergies.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-10-27
Last reviewed: 2014-09-18
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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