woman experiencing what is hay fever
woman experiencing what is hay fever

What Is Hay Fever?

9 min read



What is hay fever? It may surprise you to learn hay fever is not a fever at all — and it’s not caused by hay.

Today, we’re examining hay fever, its causes, common symptoms, and treatment methods. Learning about hay fever is the first step towards finding relief and improving your quality of life.

What Is Hay Fever? Understanding the Allergic Condition

Hay fever, also known as seasonal allergic rhinitis, is an allergic reaction mostly experienced in the spring and fall. It’s extremely common, with nearly 81 million Americans diagnosed with hay fever in 2021.

The allergic reaction causing hay fever may trigger cold-like symptoms. Unlike a cold, though, hay fever is not caused by a virus.

Hay fever is typically triggered by pollen released by trees, grasses, and weeds, though some people may also experience hay fever-like symptoms from indoor allergens like pet dander or dust mites. This is a related condition known as perennial allergic rhinitis, most frequently incorporating the same kinds of symptoms and treatment methods.

When people with hay fever come into contact with these airborne pollen particles, their immune systems react defensively, leading to a flood of symptoms.

Seasonal Allergic Rhinitis vs Perennial Allergic Rhinitis

As you learn more about what is hay fever versus what isn’t, you will need to distinguish between seasonal allergic rhinitis and perennial allergic rhinitis.

Seasonal allergic rhinitis (hay fever): An allergic reaction to outdoor allergens commonly experienced in spring, summer, or early fall. Those affected are likely susceptible to airborne mold spores or to pollens from trees, grass, and weeds.

Perennial allergic rhinitis: A similar set of symptoms caused by dust mites, pet hair or dander, cockroaches, or mold and experienced year-round.

What is Hay Fever Caused By?

When someone with hay fever comes into contact with certain airborne allergens, their immune system mistakes them as harmful and reacts defensively.

Their immune system releases histamines and other chemicals, which lead to inflammation and irritation in their upper respiratory tract and eyes. This results in the characteristic symptoms of hay fever, which are often similar to those experienced when we have a cold.

So what’s hay fever caused by? The answer to that is pollen. Different plants release pollen at different times of the year, causing hay fever symptoms to be most pronounced during specific seasons. If you’ve ever wondered what causes fall allergies or why you are sniffling in spring, it could be your immune system’s response to:

Tree pollen: Many trees release pollen in the spring, causing symptoms of hay fever to occur. Common tree pollen allergens include oak, birch, cedar, and pine.

Grass pollen: Grasses typically release pollen in late spring and early summer, contributing to hay fever symptoms during this period. Common grass pollen allergens include Timothy grass, Bermuda grass, and Meadow grass (also known as Kentucky bluegrass).

Weed pollen: Weeds release pollen in late summer and fall, causing symptoms during these seasons. Common weed pollen allergens include ragweed, sagebrush, and pigweed.

It's important to note that the severity of hay fever symptoms may vary depending on factors such as your sensitivity to specific allergens, the pollen count in your region, and the local climate. Allergy genetics also play a role in determining susceptibility to hay fever.

Overall, the root cause of hay fever lies in the immune system's misguided response to harmless substances, which leads to the discomfort and inconvenience of allergy symptoms.

Common Symptoms of Hay Fever

What is hay fever causing you to feel? Recognizing the symptoms of hay fever is vital to knowing how to treat it. If you’ve ever experienced common symptoms of hay fever, you recognize that they are similar to that of the common cold.

Common symptoms of hay fever include:

  • Sneezing: Frequent and repeated sneezing, often in rapid succession.
  • Runny or stuffy nose: A congested or drippy nose due to inflammation of the nasal passages.
  • Itchy and watery eyes: Irritation, redness, and excessive tearing in the eyes.
  • Itchy throat and ears: Uncomfortable itching sensations in the throat and ears.
  • Fatigue: General tiredness or exhaustion due to disrupted sleep caused by the symptoms.
  • Coughing: Occasional dry coughing triggered by postnasal drip.
  • Sinus problems: Headaches, pain, or pressure in the sinuses

Hay Fever Treatment Methods

Hay fever, or seasonal allergic rhinitis, can impact your quality of life if it’s not properly managed. Fortunately, there are various treatment approaches that can provide relief from its most common symptoms. These treatments can be categorized into three main sections:

  1. Short-term hay fever treatment
  2. Long-term hay fever treatment
  3. Lifestyle adjustments for hay fever
Short-Term Hay Fever Treatment Options

Short-term hay fever symptom relief may be achieved through:

Antihistamines: These over-the-counter (OTC) medications block the effects of histamines, which are responsible for triggering common hay fever symptoms like sneezing, itching, and a runny nose. They provide rapid relief and are available in various forms, including pills, liquids, and dissolvable tablets; however, for some, there may be risks associated with long-term antihistamine use.

Corticosteroid nasal sprays: These help reduce inflammation and congestion in the nasal passages. They offer relief from hay fever symptoms like sneezing, runny nose, and nasal congestion when used daily and consistently. These nasal sprays are available both over the counter and by prescription.

Antihistamine nasal sprays: These help reduce inflammation, itch, and congestion in the nasal passages and can be used daily or as needed

Eye drops: Itchy and watery eyes are a common symptom of hay fever. Specialized eye drops containing antihistamines or mast cell stabilizers can alleviate eye discomfort and redness.

Steam inhalation treatments: Inhaling steam from a bowl of hot water can temporarily ease congestion and soothe irritated nasal passages. Adding a few drops of essential oils like eucalyptus oil may help bring up mucus.

Long-Term Hay Fever Treatment Methods

For ongoing hay fever symptom relief in the long term, you may consider allergen immunotherapy (AIT), which can cure you of your allergies. There are 3 major types of AIT :

Allergy shots: This approach involves receiving injections in the doctor's office weekly, and then monthly, of gradually increasing amounts of allergens (such as pollen) over several years. It helps the immune system build tolerance to these allergens, reducing the severity of allergic reactions.

Allergy tablets: Instead of injections, allergy tablets are dissolved under the tongue daily and are available for certain pollens and dust mites. Each tablet only contains one allergen, but also works to build tolerance to allergens over time. The first dose is typically given in the doctor's office.

Prescription allergy drops: These fully customized, at-home allergy immunotherapy drops are formulated for you based on what you are allergic to by a qualified clinician. In cases of severe or persistent hay fever symptoms, prescription allergy drops may be an ideal alternative to more invasive treatment methods like allergy shots.

Lifestyle Adjustments for Treating Hay Fever

There are a few simple lifestyle adjustments that can make a difference in your hay fever symptoms such as:

  • Monitor pollen levels: Keep track of local pollen counts, which are often reported in weather forecasts. Limit outdoor activities on days when pollen levels are high.
  • Close your windows and doors: During peak pollen times, keep windows and doors closed to prevent allergens from entering your living spaces.
  • Shower and change clothes: After spending time outdoors, take a shower and change clothes to remove pollen from your skin and hair, preventing it from spreading indoors and worsening your hay fever symptoms.
  • Air purifiers: Use an air purifier equipped with a HEPA filter to trap airborne allergens and improve indoor air quality.
  • Don’t line dry clothing: Pollen can stick to clothes dried outdoors. Opt for using a clothes dryer instead to minimize exposure.
  • Careful plant selection: If you have a garden, choose low-pollen or allergy-friendly plants to minimize exposure to hay fever triggers while still enjoying outdoor spaces.

So, what’s hay fever? Contrary to what the name implies, hay fever is a seasonal allergic reaction to airborne allergens like mold spores and pollens from trees, grasses, and weeds. There are many short-term and long-term relief options as well as simple lifestyle adjustments to minimize your exposure.

Unsure if you’re experiencing hay fever symptoms? Try our at-home allergy test kit to learn what you’re allergic to and start planning your relief.

Keep Learning

They say knowledge is power. We couldn’t agree more. Learn about the chronic health condition that affects 50 million Americans every year.