The Ins and Outs of Hay Fever

by Wellness Editor – MH

Americans are no stranger to allergies; it is estimated that roughly 55% of people in the US are allergic to at least one substance. In addition to clogging up the nostrils of millions of people, allergies also sicken the economy, costing businesses and the US health care system nearly $8 billion annually. One bothersome thorn-in-the-side for many people is hay fever, a type of allergy that is the source of much stress to nearly 17 million Americans. Like other allergies, there is no cure for hay fever, though its effects can be largely mitigated through common-sense medical treatment.

A Fever in Name Only

Hay fever’s name is actually a misnomer. Fevers usually develop as a side effect of the body’s efforts to fight infectious bacteria and viruses. Hay fever, in contrast, is an allergic overreaction by the body to various allergens. There is no actual fever involved, and the patient’s symptoms are not caused by exposure to hay. The list of the true triggers of hay fever includes pollen, dust mites, mold and pet dander.

None of the aforementioned items are actually harmful to the body. The problem is that your immune system thinks they are, and treats them like malicious foreign invaders. For patients with hay fever, allergens prompt the immune system to release large quantities of histamine and leukotrienes into the bloodstream. In turn, this causes the lining of the sinuses, nasal passages and eyelids to swell noticeably in size. The body uses this tactic to prevent allergens from reaching sensitive parts of the body, such as the nasal passages. In addition, the immune system tries to expel these supposedly harmful particles by causing the patient to sneeze.

As any hay fever sufferer can attest, sneezing and a stuffy nose aren’t the only symptoms caused by this malady. There are plenty of other ways for hay fever to make peoples’ lives miserable:

  • Coughing
  • Watery Eyes
  • Itching sensations in the roof of the mouth, throat and nose
  • Pain in the sinuses
  • Blue and swollen skin underneath both eyes
  • A reduced ability to smell objects and taste food

A Look at Hay Fever Allergens

Being a type of allergy, the onset of hay fever can be directly linked to the patient’s exposure to various external triggers. These tiny nuisances can be found in both indoor and outdoor environments, and often appear like clockwork during certain parts of the year.

Outdoor Hay Fever Allergens

  • Trees during the spring months.
  • Grass pollen, which is especially prevalent during late spring and into summer.
  • Pollen from ragweed, a flowering plant most heavily concentrated in the Midwest and parts of the Southern United States.
  • Fungi and mold spores, which tend to thrive in warmer weather.

Indoor Hay Fever Allergens

  • Dust mites. Despite their name, dust mites are actually eight-legged microscopic creatures that feed on dead skin cells.
  • Pet dander, which are simply tiny pieces of skin that have been shed by cats and dogs. In addition, the term pet dander also refers to saliva from the same animals. This saliva can feature certain proteins that trigger hay fever symptoms. Aside from domesticated pets, pet dander can also be shed by other animals with fur, including rodents and birds.
  • Mold and fungi spores. In a house or building, you are most likely to encounter mold and fungi in warm, moist areas. Consequentially, both allergens can often be found growing in areas like basements and showers.

Oftentimes, the best form of treatment is to simply avoid the substances that irritate the nose and throat. Unfortunately, this often easier said than done. During the spring months, for example, it can be virtually impossible to avoid pollen-emitting trees. Likewise, ragweed can sprout up anywhere toward and the end of summer opening weeks of autumn.

Indoor allergens are much more manageable. For example, there are plenty of ways to kill off dust mites inside your home. Blankets and bed sheets should be changed regularly, since both are often fertile breeding grounds for dust mites. Once removed from the beds they cover, bed sheets and blankets should be washed in hot water. As useful as detergents are for cleaning stains, they are often unable to eliminate stubborn dust mites on their own. If possible, aim for a temperature of about 130 degrees Fahrenheit.

To prevent new dust mites form accumulating inside your bed room (or anywhere else in your home, for that matter), you might consider purchasing a dehumidifier. These devices work to limit the amount of moisture in indoor environments, thereby depriving dust mites of the fuel the need to survive and reproduce. When adjusting the setting of a dehumidifier, a good rule of thumb is to aim for a relative humidity level of less than 50 percent.

Mold and fungi can also be successfully removed from indoor surfaces. Many spores can be taken care of with a detergent/water mix. If a surface has become overly moldy, however, it may be well past saving. This can be especially true of ceiling tiles and carpets, which have plenty of tiny crevices for mold and fungi to hide in. Removing spores from these materials can be an impossible task.

Given its negative impact on the body, cleaning mold and fungi requires several precautions. If you decide to get rid of these pests by yourself, you’ll need to pick up some rubber gloves and goggles. Furthermore, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advises purchasing an N-95 respirator, a device that somewhat resembles a medical facemask. If all this seems like an awful lot of work, there is always the option of hiring a professional mold removal service.

Fighting the Fever

Besides keeping your distance from certain allergens, the symptoms of hay fever can be curtailed with over-the-counter medicine. One type of medication used to treat hay fever is antihistamines. As their name indicates, these drugs work to counteract the effects of histamine, a chemical the body releases to counter both real and imagined threats. This histamine is directly responsible for much of the misery that befalls allergy sufferers, causing a good deal of swelling within the nasal cavity.

A patient’s plight can also be alleviated through the use of decongestants, another type of over-the-counter medication. Like antihistamines, the purpose of decongestants is to reduce persistent swelling inside the nasal passages. Specifically, a decongestant will attempt to return swollen tissues and blood vessels back to normal size.

Both antihistamines and decongestants are available in many forms to consumers, including liquids, pills and nasal sprays. Though many of these medications are available without a prescription, some potent antihistamines and decongestants can only be bought with a doctor’s approval. Additionally, these drugs are not without side effects; antihistamines can cause dry mouth, nausea, vomiting, moodiness and drowsiness. For their part, decongestants have been linked to problems like restlessness, nervousness, nausea, poor appetite and headache. Overusing a decongestant can also trigger an adverse reaction called a “rebound effect,” a phenomenon in which the patient’s symptoms actually increase in severity.

Seasonal allergies, such as hay fever, can turn a normal workday into a test of endurance (and, some may argue, a test of sanity as well). While those with hay fever cannot fully insulate themselves against this condition, a combination of sensible precautions and commonplace medicines can make hay fever season much more bearable.

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