After a long winter, the arrival of spring is often a welcome time! Yet what is good news for some is bad news for the 30 million Americans that suffer from what is popularly known as "hay fever" and what doctors call "allergic rhinitis." (Interestingly enough, hay fever is a misnomer since the symptoms aren't caused by hay and don't include fever!)
What causes allergies?
As the earth warms and plants begin anew, millions and millions of particles called pollens are released into the air from trees and grasses; joining them are mold spores released from the ground. These airborne molecules can travel hundreds of miles, reaching our eyes and noses and being inhaled into our respiratory tracts.
In susceptible people, the immune system labels these particles (or pollen) as invaders and mounts an attack. Unfortunately, this well-intentioned reaction creates the symptoms we know as allergies.
Who suffers from seasonal allergic rhinitis?
We know that genes and environment both play a role. If a child has one affected parent, he has a 25 to 50 percent chance of developing allergic rhinitis and up to a 75 percent chance if both parents are affected. Increasing this risk are exposure to pollutants, certain respiratory infections, and cigarette smoke. Since the immune system requires "priming" (previous exposures) before a full-fledged reaction occurs, seasonal allergies aren't common under the age of three. (This is in contrast to perennial allergies—reactions to indoor irritants such as dust, mites, dander, or roaches—which can begin earlier and last year round.) Most seasonal allergy sufferers first show symptoms before the age of 20, and children as young as five can be affected.
How can I tell if I'm suffering from allergies?
The symptoms are well known: itchy, watery eyes, runny noses, and sneezing. There can be a loss of ability to smell and taste, and pressure in the head. Most importantly though, symptoms come seasonally, in the spring, summer, and/or fall. Doctors look for physical signs including dark circles under the eyes, clear mucus from the nose (containing allergic cells, not ones meant to fight infection), and small extra creases just under the eyes. The presence of a fever, severe headache or facial pain, symptoms out of season, cough or difficulty breathing would not be typical of allergies and can suggest an infection.