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About Hay Fever

Hay fever is an allergic reaction to pollen and therefore is common in spring and summer. Typical symptoms include itchy eyes, blocked or runny nose, sneezing fits and breathing problems. Some people react in a similar way to house dust and animals such as cats, dogs and horses. In England alone, there may be over 10 million people with hay fever. Most sufferers rely on anti-histamines to get through the pollen season.

On average about 1 person in 90 suffers badly enough to consult a doctor, and many other people have the disorder in a milder form. People are particularly susceptible if they have another allergic condition such as asthma or eczema, or if any such conditions run in the family.

The general increase in conditions such as hay fever and asthma may be related to the increased amount of environmental toxins and pollutants to which we are all becoming more regularly exposed. A combination of pollution in the environment and exposure to household chemicals may weaken the body’s resistance. If this occurs, it lessens the body’s ability to control its response towards allergies.

Hay fever is the name given to pollen allergy. Other terms for hay fever include Seasonal Allergic Rhinitis or Pollinosis. Hay fever or allergic rhinitis, is a chronic inflammation of the nose, throat, and sinuses. It is induced by external irritants, usually pollens carried in the air. Spring hay fever is related to tree pollen, summer to grass pollen and autumn to weed pollen.

Non-seasonal allergies are usually due to household irritants such as dust, animal hair, and droppings of the house dust mite, mould, mildew, insect stings and bites. People with pollen sensitivities have a hard time, as it is difficult to avoid pollen because it is in the air that we breathe. For many people with hay fever, spring and summer represent a real nightmare. A small number of hay fever sufferers experience symptoms that significantly interfere with everyday life and are difficult to control with medication.

Anyone can develop an allergy to a common substance, but those who do have usually inherited the tendency as a family trait. The sensitivity is developed after exposure to the substance. Hay fever is a good example of this process.

During the seasons when plants are pollinating, everyone in the surrounding area is exposed. People with allergic tendency may develop sensitivity to any one or more of the pollens, although certain pollens are more likely to cause an allergic reaction than others.

Pollens that are light enough to be wind-borne are what cause the problem for most hay-fever sufferers. Heavier pollens that are carried from plant to plant by bees and by other insects can also be allergens, but they cause trouble only when a person comes into direct contact with the plant. Airborne pollens can penetrate anywhere, indoors and out, and are most numerous at the height of the pollinating season for the particular plant.

Health complications from repeated hay fever attacks, year after year, may be an even more serious problem. Chronic sinusitis – inflammation of the sinus cavities is one of these problems. Another is nasal polyps, or growths. In addition, a significant percentage of people with hay fever have or develop asthma.

The “hay fever season” can be a different time of year for different people. In part, this is because trees, grasses, and weeds produce pollens during different seasons. People who are sensitive to pollens produced by grasses may suffer in the late spring, and early summer, the time when most grasses are pollinating. About half of all hay fever sufferers are sensitive to grass pollens.

Weeds flourish in most parts of the country from midsummer to late autumn. In the late autumn, ragweed is the most common problem. In fact, ragweed is the plant that causes the most hay fever. But an individual may react to one or more pollens in more than one of these groups, so the person’s season may be from early spring to the first frost.

People who are sensitive to dust, to dog or cat dander (tiny scales or particles that fall off hair, feathers, or skin) or to some other airborne material that they cannot protect themselves from may suffer all year round.

Mould and fungus spores, also airborne during the summer, can cause reactions in many people. Frequently found around hay, straw, and dead leaves, their growth is encouraged by humid weather and by places with poor air circulation -damp basements for instance.

Sensitivity is the term used to describe the process by which you develop an allergy. Sensitivity is established when the tissues that form antibodies (lymphoid tissues) are stimulated to make specialized antibodies to otherwise harmless pollens, spores, etc. These antibodies fix to other specialized cells throughout the body that contain powerful defensive substances such as histamine. When the individual next is exposed to the pollen (as in the nose, for instance), the antibodies trigger the cells to secrete their defensive substances. This in turn causes the dilation of blood vessels, increased secretions of fluids, swelling of tissues, itching, sneezing, and other reactions that add up to hay fever.

The inflammation and other symptoms, while real enough, actually are not of the same destructive nature as those carried by more serious diseases. Removing the cause of the reaction usually results in immediate relief.

The side effects of chronic or untreated hay fever can make a person feel constantly ill. Adults and children can become irritable and moody. They may have difficulty falling asleep at night due to the nasal congestion.

There are many preparations that can be bought over the counter or with a doctor’s prescription. However, possible side effects and inconvenience of treatment may be more troublesome than the condition itself.

Possible Symptoms

Sneezing that is repeated and prolonged is the most common mark of the hay fever sufferer. A stuffy and watery nose is also a main sign of hay fever. Other symptoms include:

  • Redness, swelling and itching of the eyes
  • Itching of the nose, throat and mouth
  • Itching of the ears, or other ear problems
  • Breathing difficulties at night due to obstruction of the nose may interfere with sleep.

These symptoms differ in degree according to the individual, ranging from mild to severe. When severe, they are very uncomfortable, making it difficult to carry out daily tasks, and may cause loss of time from work and school.

Western Medical View

When avoiding the triggers of an allergy is no longer possible without severely compromising the quality of daily life, the Antihistamine drug in the form of pills, nasal sprays and eye drops can be purchased from pharmacists over the counter. Antihistamine works to block the body’s release of histamine – the chemical which causes allergy symptoms such as itching, sneezing, watery eyes and runny nose. Antihistamine causes side effects such as headache, constipation, drowsiness and blurred vision and is unsuitable for pregnant women. For extreme cases of allergy, Immunotherapy is used and involves injecting allergen into the blood over a period of up to 5 years in order to suppress the allergic responses of the immune system.

Decongestants may help, as well. However, they don’t affect the underlying sensitivity. Each individual has to depend on his or her doctor to find out what drug or combination of drugs works best.

Using air conditioning and air purifying devices may help cut down on suffering during the hay fever season, so that normal sleep and work are possible. Dust masks should be used during outdoor work if the work cannot be avoided.

Antihistamine drugs are temporarily effective for relieving hay fever symptoms. However, they should be used sparingly as they tend to dry out the mucous membranes and thereby increase sensitivity to antihistamine. After taking them for more than a month or so, they become less and less effective. The side effects of drowsiness and dryness of the nose and throat may be more troublesome than the hay fever itself.

However, over the counter drugs don’t affect the underlying sensitivity. Nose sprays are usually of limited value and their prolonged use may actually cause symptoms or make them worse. All drug treatments merely suppress symptoms and do not alter the basic allergic reaction. Some sufferers of hay fever have Desensitisation injections.

If a skin test has succeeded in identifying the offending substance then the sensitive individual is injected with increasing concentration of the allergen. This, usually, needs to be done over a period of two years. This treatment sometimes works well, but sometimes does not.

Chinese Medical View

Acupuncture has been proved to be an effective treatment for hay fever through clinical trials*.

According to Chinese Medicine theory, hay fever is a condition of atopy (a form of hypersensitivity) and can be successfully treated by using Chinese herbs and acupuncture. Hay fever is usually attributed to a deficiency of Qi (the body’s essential energy) and an invasion of Wind-Heat in the Lung. Symptoms vary from patient to patient and the prescription will be based on the experiences and symptoms of the individual.

Chinese medicine has been shown to be very effective in treating allergies. In a comparative study on treating Type I allergic diseases, acupuncture and desensitisation therapies were used in 143 cases. The outcome showed that acupuncture had an extensive and remarkable effect on Type I allergic reactions. The curative effect was higher in the acupuncture group than in the desensitisation group (Journal of TCM, 1993 Dec.).

Although acupuncture is often associated with pain control, in the hands of a well-trained practitioner it has much broader application. The modern scientific explanation is that acupuncture stimulates the nervous system to release chemicals in the body that influence the body’s own internal regulating system. The improved energy and biochemical balance produced by acupuncture results in stimulating the body’s natural healing abilities. It can help to strengthen the body’s resistance and can regulate the body’s antigen-antibody’s reactions. This is important in helping to relieve hay fever and other allergic reactions such as asthma.

According to Chinese Medicine theory generally the aim of the treatment for hay fever will be to open the Lung Qi to expel the Wind-Heat. A herbal treatment prescription can be formulated specifically to a patient’s condition and should be altered as the symptoms change.

Acupuncture can be prescribed according to CM theory to treat hay fever . It can achieve fairly fast and lasting results. Nasal congestion, discharge, and itching  can be relieved during the first acupuncture treatment. Six treatments may be needed to give lasting relief of hay fever symptoms. Some patients return for a series of six treatments each year just before what used to be their hay fever season. Others remain free from hay fever for years after one course of acupuncture treatments.

As hay fever is fundamentally the result of a weakness in the immune system according to CM theory, acupuncture and Chinese herbal treatment will aim to primarily strengthen it and support the necessary changes in patient’s lifestyle and diet. Regular physical exercises and immune boosting food and herbs are as important as the treatment. A course of 4 weeks of Chinese Medical treatment before the pollen season starts can often prevent hay fever or reduce the severity of its symptoms significantly.

The Hay Fever Programme at AcuMedic includes three sessions of acupuncture with herbal supplements.

The length and effectiveness of the treatment really depends on the lifestyle and condition of the individual at the first visit, as all patients will have different situations which require individual attention in their treatment.

Lifestyle Advice for the prevention and treatment of Hay Fever

For expert advice and information on the treatment of allergies, please see our free guide Relieve Your Allergies.

For personalised advice on diet and lifestyle, please ask the doctor during your consultation.

Please be reminded that we offer free online health advice.


Huang YQ. [Therapeutic effect of acupuncture treatment in 128 cases of hay fever.] Chinese Acupuncture and Moxibustion, 1990, 10(6):296-297 [in Chinese].

Chari P et al. Acupuncture therapy in allergic rhinitis. American Journal of Acupuncture, 1988, 16(2):143-147.

Jin R et al. [Clinical observation of 100 cases with allergic rhinitis treated by acupuncture.] Chinese Acupuncture and Moxibustion, 1989, 9(4):185-186 [in Chinese].

Yu JL et al. [Effect of acupuncture treatment in 230 cases of allergic rhinitis.] Chinese Acupuncture and Moxibustion, 1994, 14(5):241-242 [in Chinese].

Liu DX. [Acupuncture at biqiu in the treatment of allergic rhinitis.] Chinese Acupuncture and Moxibustion, 1995, 15(6):293 [in Chinese].