Plagued by itchy eyes, sneezing and a runny nose? You could be among the 24.4 million Americans with seasonal allergic rhinitis, more commonly called hay fever. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that includes 19.2 million adults (7.7 percent of the population) and 5.2 million young people under age 18 (7.2 percent). And, the CDC says, hay fever accounts for 12 million doctor’s office visits each year. Though symptoms resemble those of a cold, hay fever is not caused by a virus but by the immune system’s reaction to breathed-in mold spores or pollen, typically from trees in the early spring, grasses in later spring and summer, and ragweed in the fall. Despite its nickname, hay fever does not cause a fever, and it rarely has anything to do with hay. Legend holds that the name was first used in the early 1800s to describe symptoms caused by inhaling pollen or dust while harvesting or stacking hay, subsequently becoming the go-to name for seasonal allergies. To identify what’s causing an allergic reaction, doctors can do a skin test, by pricking or scratching the skin surface with possible allergens or injecting a small amount of an allergen under the skin, then watching for a reaction. Treatment for hay fever starts with avoiding, as much as possible, whatever is triggering your symptoms. Medication options may include over-the-counter or prescription nasal corticosteroids, antihistamines (taken as a pill, nasal spray or eye drops) or decongestants (liquid, tablet or nasal spray). The next step is often periodic allergy shots (immunotherapy), intended to help your body develop a tolerance to whatever allergen is causing your symptoms and lessening the need for medication.
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