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Virginia Chachati

Reviewed by Virginia Chachati MPharm
(2013, University College London)
GPhC Registration number: 2087654

Information last reviewed 08/02/21

About

What is hay fever?

Hay fever is a condition caused by an allergy to pollen. When a person with hay fever comes into contact with pollen they experience runny itchy eyes, sneezing, a blocked nose and tiredness. Hay fever is common between March and September when the pollen count is high.

What causes hay fever?

Hay fever is caused by an allergic reaction to pollen. Pollen is released from trees, grass and plants into the air. Some people are allergic to these kinds of pollen and may  experience itchy or runny eyes, sneezing or nasal congestion. These hay fever symptoms usually occur between March and September which is known as high pollen season.

Hay fever risk factors

Hay fever is more likely to occur during spring and summer when the pollen count is high. You can check the pollen count on the weather forecast before going outdoors. People with other allergies, such as eczema or respiratory conditions like asthma are more likely to suffer from hayfever.

Symptoms

Hay fever symptoms

The symptoms of hay fever include: 

  • Red, itchy and watery eyes 
  • Coughing 
  • Sneezing
  • Blocked or runny nose 
  • Loss of smell
  • Headache
  • Pain in the temples or forehead 
  • Tiredness
  • Earache 

How is hay fever diagnosed?

A GP can diagnose hay fever by talking to you about your symptoms. They may ask you how long you have had your symptoms, or when and where your symptoms occur, to rule out any other allergies. In some cases, you may be referred to have an allergy test which may include either a skin prick test or a blood test.

Treatment

What hay fever treatments are available?

Antihistamine treatments are available to purchase over the counter at a pharmacy. Treatments include tablets, nasal sprays and eye drops. You can use hay fever treatments before you come into contact with pollen or when symptoms occur. Your GP can prescribe alternative treatments for more severe, persistent hay fever.

Prescription vs over the counter hay fever treatments

Hay fever treatments available over the counter at a pharmacy are antihistamines or steroid-based. They are usually fast-acting and you use them for a short period of time. If your hay fever isn’t getting better with over the counter treatments, you can consider getting prescription medication. Prescription medicines can be used for a longer period of time if needed. The best treatment for you will depend on the severity of your hay fever.

How to avoid hay fever?

There are steps you can take to be prepared for pollen season. Some hay fever medicines can be used to prevent an allergic reaction to pollen before going outdoors.  On days where the pollen count is high, you may want to limit your time outdoors, avoid walking on freshly cut grass and wear wrap-around sunglasses to prevent irritation and redness of the eyes. Wash and change your clothes after being outside, keep windows closed and don't keep freshly cut flowers in the house.

Can hay fever be cured?

There is no cure for hay fever but it can be managed to help you to live a normal life. Medicines can treat hay fever and prevent it from happening or getting worse.

What is immunotherapy for hay fever?

Allergen-specific immunotherapy for hay fever is a treatment option only if medicines do not work. You are given small doses of the pollen you are allergic to. The aim is to reduce your sensitivity to the pollen, so your immune system does not have a hay fever reaction to it. Allergen-specific immunotherapy is given as either injections or drops under the tongue over a long period of time, which can be a number of years.

How do nasal sprays work for hay fever?

Hay fever nasal sprays typically contain a corticosteroid. Corticosteroids help reduce inflammation in your nose. This helps unblock your nose and stop a runny nose.

Can a neti pot help hay fever?

A neti pot is a small container with a spout that is designed to flush out and clear your nasal passage with warm salty water. A neti pot can help reduce the severity of your hay fever symptoms by loosening mucus and getting rid of pollen in the nasal area. This can unblock your nose. You can use a neti pot alongside your regular hay fever treatment as there is no medicine in a neti pot.

Are there specific eye drops for hay fever?

Antihistamine eye drops are available to treat hay fever. You can buy these over the counter at a pharmacy. If they are not working for you, your doctor can prescribe different eye drops that are suitable for you.

How do steroids help hay fever?

Steroids help hay fever by reducing inflammation in response to an allergen such as pollen. The steroids present in hay fever medicines are called corticosteroids. You produce corticosteroids naturally in your body using your adrenal glands. When you use a corticosteroid as a medicine, you generally use it for a short period of time.

Home treatments for hay fever

Using a neti pot to rinse out your nose with salt water can help unblock your nose, especially after being outdoors. You can use a few drops of eucalyptus oil in a bowl of hot water to practise steam inhalation to help a blocked nose too. Make sure to wash your hair if you have been outdoors to prevent pollen from irritating your eyes and nose. In addition, you can use an eyewash to help rinse your eyes to reduce grittiness and irritation after being outdoors.

How to help children with hay fever?

If your child has hay fever you can get treatment and advice from a GP or pharmacist, to help them manage their symptoms. There are other steps you can take to help them feel better. Check the weather forecast each day to see if the pollen count is high. During high pollen season, keep your windows closed and limit their time outdoors. Get them a pair of sunglasses to protect their eyes and change their clothes after being outdoors to limit their exposure to lingering pollen. Washing and bathing every day will also get rid of pollen, to stop it from interfering with their sleep.

Does eating honey help hay fever?

Unfortunately, there is currently no scientific evidence that eating honey helps to ease or stop the symptoms of hay fever. In addition, honey as a food source is not recommended for children under twelve months old.

Side Effects

Can I drive after taking antihistamines?

All antihistamines can potentially cause drowsiness or sleepiness. An antihistamine labelled as “non-drowsy” can still cause drowsiness in some people. You should not drive until you know how an antihistamine medicine will affect you. It is not safe to drive while experiencing drowsiness.

Q&A

Is hay fever just an allergy?

Hay fever is also known as allergic rhinitis. It is an allergic reaction to pollen. Pollen is a fine powder which is released into the air from trees, grasses and plants during spring and summer.

What is allergic rhinitis?

Allergic rhinitis is another name for hay fever. It refers to the inflammation in your nose that occurs when you have an allergic reaction to pollen. This results in your nose becoming blocked or runny.

Why is hay fever worse some years than others?

There are some years where the pollen count is higher than others. The higher the pollen count, the worse your hay fever will feel. Your exposure to pollen is higher if you spend more time outdoors so your hay fever may be worse because of that too.

Can you only get hay fever in summer?

Hay fever symptoms are most likely to occur between late March and September, although they can occur at other times of year too. If you experience persistent hay fever all year round then this could be a sign of another allergy. You should see your GP for an allergy test if this happens.

Can hay fever make asthma worse?

Asthma can be triggered by an allergic reaction and this includes hay fever. Therefore, hay fever can make asthma feel worse. You should carry your rescue inhaler at all times just in case you feel short of breath. Your GP may prescribe you a preventer inhaler to use every day in order to reduce inflammation and keep your airways clear. Taking antihistamines or using nasal sprays and eye drops when needed may also help to control your hay fever symptoms.

How to tell if you have hay fever vs a cold?

Hay fever is an allergic reaction to pollen. In contrast, the common cold is an infection caused by a virus. You may feel tired and have a blocked or runny nose with hay fever or a cold. However, you are more likely to have a sore throat, cough and body aches with a cold. Whereas in hay fever you are more likely to have itchy eyes and throat irritation.

What is the hygiene hypothesis and how does it relate to hay fever?

The hygiene hypothesis is a theory developed by a professor of epidemiology called David P. Strachan. His theory suggests that children’s environments are kept so clean that they are not exposed to enough germs that challenge their immune system. This might make children more likely to react to germs in the future in the form of an allergy, like hay fever. To encourage children to develop a healthy immune system, Strachan advised that children spend time outdoors and with other children. However, there is no scientific evidence to support the hygiene hypothesis theory.

What are the complications of hay fever?

Hay fever can have a negative impact on the quality of your life. You may find it difficult to sleep. Hay fever can trigger and make asthma feel worse. Manage your hay fever by avoiding pollen and use medicines, where necessary, to help control your symptoms.

How can hay fever affect your life?

Hay fever can restrict outdoor activity and make it difficult to enjoy warm weather during the summer. It can also cause tiredness, especially if hay fever symptoms make it difficult for you to sleep. Avoid pollen and use medicines to help control your hay fever symptoms and get back to living a better quality of life.

Can hay fever kill you?

Hay fever can pose a serious risk to your health if you also have a respiratory condition such as asthma or COPD. If you have a condition which affects your lungs, then visit your GP to make sure your medicines or inhalers are up to date. Your GP may also prescribe antihistamines or steroids for reducing hay fever symptoms. A pharmacist can advise you on which over the counter treatments may be best for you.

Is it okay to take antihistamines every day during the summer?

Antihistamines for hay fever can be used daily during the summer months. Although antihistamines help to treat and prevent the symptoms of hay fever from getting worse, make sure to speak to your GP or pharmacist for advice on long term use.

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