Child is sneezing from the hay fever pollen in the park. Her mother is standing next to her holding a tissue, waiting to hand it to her. It appears to be the autumn season.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), roughly 19.2 million adults were diagnosed in the United States as having hay fever, with another 5.2 million of people under 18 reporting hay fever in the past 12 months of a 2018 survey. That is a considerable amount of people suffering with hay fever allergies, also known as seasonal allergic rhinitis. 

What is hay fever?

Hay fever or allergic rhinitis is a seasonal allergy. It is a condition that causes the eyes to water, nose to run, throat to itch, and lungs to feel tight. It can be triggered by pollen from trees, grasses, weeds, ragweed, and other plants.

Hay fever is not the same as a grass or hay allergy A grass allergy is actually an allergic reaction to grass pollen. Grass grows in most parts of the United States, but there are different types of grass. Each type has its own unique pollen. An allergy to hay is an allergy to the grass eaten by many farm animals.

What are the symptoms of hay fever?

Hay fever symptoms include common symptoms such as itchy eyes, sneezing or a runny nose, and postnasal drip. Allergic rhinitis symptoms can also include coughing, sore throat, itchy throat, hay fever headaches, fatigue, and even sinus pressure or problems.

Severe hay fever allergy symptoms include watery eyes, itchy nose or throat, sneezing, a runny nose, soreness in the sinuses, coughing, wheezing, fatigue, headaches, body aches, shortness of breath, and difficulty sleeping.

What causes hay fever?

Exposure to allergens is the cause of a hay fever allergy. Hay fever is caused by an allergic reaction to pollen from trees, grasses, weeds, shrubs, and other plants that are pollinated by insects such as bees, wasps, flies, beetles, moths, butterflies, and mosquitoes.

Genetic factors accounted for the highest percentage of chances of having hay fever, with the remaining contributions due to unique environmental influences.

Hay fever, also known as allergic rhinitis, can be triggered by indoor allergens such as dust mites or pet dander, in addition to outdoor allergens.

Is hay fever contagious?

Hay fever is an allergy and not contagious. However, moving from one location to another may cause allergic symptoms from outdoor allergies because there are new risk factors involved.

How long does hay fever last?

The symptoms of hay fever can vary from person to person. Some people may experience a few days or weeks of sneezing and itchy eyes before the allergy subsides; others may have more severe reactions that persist for months at a time. The length of your reaction depends on how much pollen is in the air when you are exposed to it during pollen season. If there’s not enough pollen around, then your body will be less likely to produce an allergic response.

Air quality is another factor in how long hay fever can last. Improvements in air quality are associated with decreased prevalence of both hay fever and sinusitis.

How is hay fever diagnosed?

Hay fever is diagnosed by an allergist through family medical history, nasal smears, skin testing (skin prick) or sinus CT scan (for severe or chronic sinusitis).

The skin prick test is used for many types of allergies, including common allergies such as pet dander, dust, and food allergies.

Hay fever treatments

Treatment of hay fever includes using over-the-counter allergy medications such as antihistamines and nasal sprays that contain corticosteroids.

Another treatment option is allergen immunotherapy, known in layman’s terms as “allergy shots.” This works by introducing gradually increasing amounts of the allergen into a patient’s immune system. This is done on a regular schedule, until a maintenance level is reached. Tolerance for the allergen typically continues after immunotherapy ends. However, the long-term success rate varies from person to person.

There is no best medicine for hay fever since each person reacts differently to medications. Discuss the over-the-counter, prescription, and immunotherapy options with your doctor to find the best outcome.

Reviewed by: Purvi Parikh, MD, National Spokesperson
Dr. Purvi Parikh is an adult and pediatric allergist and immunologist at allergy and asthma associates of Murray Hill in New York City. She is currently on faculty as Clinical Assistant Professor in both departments of Medicine and Pediatrics at New York University School of Medicine.