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Hay Fever Causes and Treatment

Updated on December 3, 2009

The symptoms of hay fever are well known to the 10% of the population who suffer from this annoying and distressing condition. It starts with a sneeze, followed by another sneeze, then another, and dozens, scores or hundreds more. The nose drips constantly but remains so clogged you cannot breathe, you have bad breath, a constant drip of phlegm in your throat, red eyes, and a feeling that you just can't take any more of this devious torment. Most victims have the condition for only a few weeks or months of the year, when the pollens or dusts to which they react are present in the atmosphere. Although called hay fever, allergic rhinitis (to give it its technical tag) can be due to any one or more of several hundred different minute particles floating in the air. These can be the pollen which many plants release to fertilize others of their species, or they may be microscopic animals such as the house dust mite, or skin, scale or hair particles from animals.

Whatever the cause, the response is the same. When the sensitive, moist membranes that lines your nose and sinuses first comes into contact with the sensitizing particle (called an allergen), there is no reaction, but the body's immune system is primed to react to the next invasion by these allergens. On the second exposure, the large immunoglobulin proteins that act to defend the body against invasion by any foreign matter react violently. They cluster around special cells (called mast cells) that rupture and release a substance called histamine into the nasal tissues. Histamine causes the tissue to become inflamed. The lining of the nose swells, blocking the airway, and it secretes large amounts of clear mucus in an attempt to wash away the offending particles of pollen or dust. After a few hours or days, the body destroys the histamine released, and the tissues return to normal, until a further inhalation of allergens triggers the reaction again.

The diagnosis of hay fever is relatively obvious, but not all people with runny noses are its victims. Changes in temperature and position, emotional upsets, hormonal changes (some women find their runny noses to be worse at certain times of the month), and virus infections can all cause blocked and runny noses, and the treatment for these conditions can be quite different. Blood tests may show an increase in certain types of blood cells and other chemicals in patients with hay fever, but other diseases may produce similar changes.

Hay fever can be treated by using antihistamines to counteract the histamine released into the tissue. These are effective, but many of them cause drowsiness in patients. Some recently released and more expensive anti-histamines overcome this problem. Anti-histamine nasal sprays are also available. Another method of relief is to use pseudo ephedrine nasal sprays and tablets. A doctor may also prescribe special steroid sprays  and/or anti-allergy sprays in chronic cases. These are designed to be used regularly to prevent the nose from reacting to the allergens in the air.

Maintaining an allergy-free environment around the victim can often be beneficial. Covering mattresses and pillows with plastic, removing carpets and curtains from bedrooms, using synthetic stuffing and materials in pillows and furniture rather than animal hair, feathers or wool, and avoiding dust-collecting wickerwork and similar furniture are some of the steps that can be taken.

Victims who suffer regularly can have blood or skin tests performed to determine exactly which dusts and pollens cause the hay fever. Once this is known, a course of ten or more weekly injections may be used to desensitize the patient. An allergy specialist or general practitioner may give them, and they are effective in permanently preventing hay fever in some cases.

The last resort is surgery. In this, part of the lining of the nasal cavity may be removed by burning (diathermy), and some of the curly bones within the nose (called turbinates) may be cut out so that there is less area of membrane to secrete the excessive amounts of watery phlegm.

The exact form of treatment will depend on the severity of the disease and can only be reasonably determined after consultation with your general practitioner.

Please Note:

  • The information provided on this page is not intended as a substitute for the advice of a registered physician or other healthcare professional.

  • The content of this page is intended only to provide a summary and general overview. Do not use this information to disregard medical advice, nor to delay seeking medical advice.

  • Be sure to consult with your doctor for a professional diagnosis and appropriate medical treatment.


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