What actually causes hay fever?

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It’s that time of year again when you stock up on the tissues and buy hay fever treatments online, in anticipation of the suffering that’s sure to follow when the pollen count gets up. You know those tiny plant cells that are to blame somehow, but do you really understand the actual causes of hay fever?

The medical name for hay fever is allergic rhinitis, which is the first clue to what causes millions of people all over the world to suffer each spring and summer. It’s an allergy. Specifically, according to the NHS , it’s an allergic reaction to pollen. Typically, the pollen from plants which becomes airborne and then gets in your eyes, mouth, and nose.

Not all hay fever is the same, however, because not all pollen is the same either. Most hay fever sufferers are only allergic to one type of pollen, from one group of plants. AllergyUK explains that the most common reaction is to grass pollen, but that reactions to tree and weed pollens can also cause the symptoms we know as hay fever.

What we know as an allergic reaction is actually our body’s immune system becoming confused and attacking a foreign substance as though it were harmful, when in fact it’s simply a naturally occurring part of our environment. The immune cells produce a substance called IgE, which is what causes the itching, inflammation, and congestion we associate with hay fever.

Sometimes, people think they’re suffering from hay fever when it’s actually just a cold. The symptoms can be similar: a runny nose, sneezing, feeling congested, itchy eyes; but hay fever season can last for months and months, whereas most people will get over a cold in a week or two.

Hay fever is extremely common, affecting as many as 20% of people in the UK. It’s most commonly diagnosed in teenagers and, because there’s pollen every year, most people suffer with it annually. Most people who are diagnosed with hay fever don’t need any specific tests. However, if your symptoms are especially severe, your GP may send you for a skin prick test so that they can pin down the exact causes of your reaction, and better target your treatment.

For the majority of sufferers, it will be enough to buy hay fever treatments online, or from their local pharmacy, to keep their suffering to a minimum. However, if you have another medical condition, such as asthma, or if your hay fever is especially bad, your GP can offer you stronger or alternative treatments to keep things under control.

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