As hay fever season kicks into force, it’s good to know what works and what doesn’t — and sort out the many misconceptions around this condition.

What is hay fever

Hay fever, or allergic rhinitis, is a common condition typically manifested through inflammation in the nose. What happens is that your body’s immune system detects allergens such as pollen or dust and overreacts.

It’s essentially a type of allergy — the most common type of allergy, affecting between 10 and 30% of people in the Western World. The most common symptoms are:

  • repeated sneezing and coughing;
  • runny or blocked nose (usually with clear liquid);
  • itchy, red or watery eyes;
  • itchy throat, mouth, nose, and ears;
  • loss of usual sense of smell;
  • pain around your temples and forehead;
  • headaches;
  • earaches;
  • tiredness.

Symptoms can vary greatly in intensity and can be particularly unpleasant if also suffering from asthma.

Hay fever is usually worse between late March and September when it’s warm, humid, and windy. This creates the perfect conditions for pollen and dust to spread around and enter your nose or eyes.

Different types of pollen. Image via Wikipedia.

Before we start looking at the most common hay fever myths, it’s important to note that this can be a serious condition. If symptoms persist, you shouldn’t attempt to self-medicate. Instead, consult a pharmacist or your general practitioner. Hay fever has no cure and you can’t prevent it, but there are things you can do to ease the symptoms.

How to deal with hay fever

  • stay indoors as much as possible;
  • wear wraparound glasses or sunglasses to prevent the pollen from reaching your eyes;
  • change your clothes every time you arrive from outside, and, ideally, wash them, to get rid of any pollen or dust;
  • keep windows and doors shut as much as possible;
  • put Vaseline or a nasal balm around your nostrils to trap pollen;
  • shower often;
  • vacuum regularly, and/or use a damp cloth for dusting;
  • buy a pollen filter for the air vents in your car and a vacuum cleaner with a special HEPA filter.

What not to do when suffering from hay fever

  • stay outside for long periods of time (especially in fields or forested areas);
  • cut grass or walk on grass;
  • smoke or be around people when they smoke — it can make the symptoms much worse;
  • dry clothes inside — this attracts pollen and dust;
  • let pets outside — pets are not normally a big problem, but they can bring unwanted pollen from outside;
  • keep fresh flowers.

Hay fever myths

Illustration depicting inflammation associated with allergic rhinitis. Image credits: Bruce Blaus.

‘Hay’ fever

The first myth probably comes from the name. Hay fever actually doesn’t have much in common with hay — sure, dust or other particles in the hay can trigger it, but there’s nothing special about hay here. The link with hay came about due to an early (and incorrect) theory that the symptoms were brought about by the smell of new hay. The theory was disproven, but the name stuck.

You grow out of it

Many people think that you simply outgrow hay fever, but that’s hardly the truth. Just 10-20% of all sufferers experience a complete elimination of symptoms with time. For half of all sufferers, symptoms decrease in intensity as the years pass, but for the other half, things stay more or less the same.

Conversely, another myth is that hay fever always stays with you for life. As we mentioned, it’s not the same for everyone. Symptoms can alleviate or disappear altogether, but this is not always the case.

Rain clears the pollen

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this — even if you have the nastiest hay fever, it’s okay to go outside because rain clears the pollen away. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Stormy weather has the opposite effect, it disperses and agitates pollen, making it more likely to affect you.

After a while, you become immune to antihistamines

Antihistamines are the most common treatment against hay fever. However, because the hay fever symptoms can vary greatly in intensity, people think this means that the antihistamines simply aren’t working. That’s not true — you can use antihistamines for a long period of time without them diminishing in intensity at all.

However, if the pills never worked, it’s time to consult a doctor and find an alternative treatment.

Antihistamines make you drowsy

Many people avoid taking antihistamines because they don’t want to feel sleepy or lethargic all the time. However, while this was the case some time ago, most modern-age pills don’t cause drowsiness. Most early-age pills did — these are the so-called first-generation antihistamines. These are particularly good if your symptoms are preventing you from getting a good night’s sleep. But if you want to ease hay fever symptoms while being active, options exist.

I should only take pills if I feel bad

Most pills work better if they’re already in your system when you’ve been exposed to the allergen.

A teaspoon of honey can prevent hay fever symptoms

There’s just no science to support this. The idea is that your body would become desensitized to pollen, but that’s not how things really work. The same goes for many naturopath treatments.

Flowers cause allergies

Again, hay fever is generally caused by pollen, dust, or other similar particles. You’re not really allergic to flowers, you’re probably allergic to the pollen. Furthermore, the pollen from flowers is rarely a trigger for hay fever because pollen in most flowers and indoor plants is not carried by wind or air but rather by pollinators such as birds and bees.

Short-haired pets are better for hay fever

In the case of pet allergies, the trigger for hay fever is dead skin cells or ‘dander’. So while people may think they’re allergic to hair, they’re actually allergic to skin secretions. Cutting down your pet’s hair won’t help one bit, unfortunately.

You can’t do anything about it

Aside from the tips in the first part of the article and the antihistamines, maintaining a healthy body can also help reduce the symptoms of hay fever. Eating healthily and exercising boost your immune system, which — although there’s no guarantee — can reduce hay fever intensity. Everyone’s different, but you can at least boost your odds.

Hay fever is ultimately harmless

Hay fever is an allergy, and we all know that allergies can be very dangerous. Chronic rhinitis can cause long-lasting problems such as fatigue and chronic pain, and can also do damage indirectly, by causing you to lose focus at work. If symptoms are severe, you shouldn’t ignore them and you should seek professional medical help.