What is hay fever?

March 5, 2024
What is hay fever?

What is hay fever?

Hay fever is an extremely common allergic condition, also known as seasonal allergic rhinitis. It affects 10-30% of adults and as much as 40% of children in the UK. People are more likely to suffer from hay fever if they have a family history of asthma, allergies or eczema.

Simply put, hay fever is an allergic reaction to pollen, typically presenting when pollen comes into contact with your mouth, eyes, nose and throat.

Who is most likely to suffer from hay fever?

Hay fever is most common in children, especially teenagers, due to the changes they experience during puberty. Symptoms tend to reduce in severity with age, but can continue into adulthood. It rarely develops in children before the age of two due to the amount of time they spend indoors and is more common in children older than four years. Hay fever symptoms may interfere with sleep and daily activities at school.

Another stage in our lives when we might experience hay fever is during perimenopause and menopause, as hormone changes at this time (including the fall in progesterone levels) may cause hay fever to appear or get worse.

What are the symptoms of hay fever?

Hay fever is caused when the immune system reacts to pollen, dust mites, or tiny amounts of skin or saliva from animals. For some people when this happens, the body mistakenly believes that the pollen, or equivalent, is harmful and produces a specific antibody called immunoglobulin E (IgE). This triggers the release of chemicals in the eyes, nose and throat. One of these is histamine and is responsible for initiating the classic symptoms of hay fever.

These include:

  • Sneezing and coughing
  • A runny or blocked nose
  • Itchy, red or watery eyes
  • Itchy throat, nose and eyes
  • Headache
  • Earache
  • Loss of smell

Hay fever symptoms may last for a number of weeks or even months.

How to get rid of hay fever

There is no cure for hay fever, but symptoms may be alleviated through certain actions or with treatment. The most common first-line approach is over-the-counter medication from a pharmacist, including antihistamine tablets, nasal sprays or eye drops. There are numerous options to choose from and it’s about finding the right combination for you. Taking them two or three weeks before the season begins is often recommended and medication may be required daily.

Learn more about how to manage hay fever with our expert guide.

When you should speak to your doctor

Speaking to your GP is important if you suffer other medical conditions, such as asthma. This is because having both of these conditions may make your symptoms worse. Also, if symptoms are severe or last all year round, advice from your GP is important. Over-the-counter medicines are usually effective but, if not, you should make an appointment to see your GP for stronger treatment options that are available on prescription. These may include a steroid treatment such as a steroid nasal spray.

Get more information at the NHS website.

What is the hay fever injection?

Allergy shots essentially work like a vaccine. They are a form of exposure therapy that helps patients become desensitised or more tolerant towards their specific allergen. In the case of hay fever, small amounts of pollen are injected into the body, allowing the immune system to create antibodies and stop symptoms from occurring. While this may be a great option for some, it takes a big commitment and is generally done early in the season.

Speak to your doctor or a qualified allergist for more information, including potential side effects.

Enjoyed this? For more on allergies…

9 natural approaches to help you through allergy season
10 foods to support your seasonal allergies
Allergies in children
What is a low-histamine diet?
A guide to high-histamine foods
Top 20 low-histamine foods

This page was reviewed on 19 January 2024 by Kerry Torrens.

Emer Delaney BSc (Hons), RD has an honours degree in human nutrition and dietetics from the University of Ulster. She has worked as a dietitian in some of London’s top teaching hospitals and is currently based in Chelsea.

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other healthcare professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local healthcare provider. See our terms and conditions for more information.

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