What is allergic rhinitis (hay fever)?

Allergic rhinitis (hay fever) is an allergic reaction to tiny particles in the air called allergens. When you breathe in allergens through your nose or mouth, your body reacts by releasing a natural chemical called histamine. Several indoor and outdoor allergens cause hay fever. Common causes include dust mites, mold, pet dander and pollen from trees and plants.

Symptoms of hay fever include sneezing, nasal congestion and irritation of the nose, throat, mouth and eyes. Allergic rhinitis is not the same as infectious rhinitis, otherwise known as the common cold. Hay fever is not contagious.

When do people usually get hay fever?

You can have hay fever any time of the year. Seasonal allergies occur in the spring, summer and early fall when trees and weeds bloom and pollen counts are higher. Perennial allergies can happen year-round. They result from irritants that are always around, such as pet dander, cockroaches and dust mites.

How common is allergic rhinitis (hay fever)?

Hay fever is very common. In the United States, around 8% of the population has allergic rhinitis. Millions of children and adults have hay fever every year.

Who might get allergic rhinitis?

Allergies are inherited (passed down through families). You’re more likely to have hay fever if you have a parent or family member with allergies. People who have asthma or eczema are more likely to develop hay fever.

What causes allergic rhinitis (hay fever)?

Allergic rhinitis occurs when your body’s immune system reacts to an irritant in the air. The irritants (allergens) are so tiny that you can easily inhale them through your nose or mouth.

Allergens are harmless to most people. But if you have hay fever, your immune system thinks the allergen is intruding. The immune system tries to protect your body by releasing natural chemicals into your bloodstream. The main chemical is called histamine. It causes mucous membranes in the nose, eyes and throat to become inflamed and itchy as they work to eject the allergen.

Seasonal and perennial allergies can result from many allergens, including:

  • Dust mites that live in carpets, drapes, bedding and furniture.
  • Pollen from trees, grass and weeds.
  • Pet dander (tiny flakes of dead skin).
  • Mold spores.
  • Cockroaches, including their saliva and waste.

Food allergies can also cause inflammation in the nose and throat. If you think you’re having an allergic reaction to something you ate, get medical help right away. Food allergies can be life-threatening.

What are the symptoms of allergic rhinitis (hay fever)?

Hay fever symptoms can appear throughout the year. Outdoor allergies are worse in the spring, summer and early fall. In warm weather, weeds and flowers bloom, and pollen counts are higher. Indoor allergies, such as those that result from pet dander and dust mites, can get worse in winter because people spend more time indoors.

Symptoms of hay fever include:

  • Nasal stuffiness (congestion), sneezing and runny nose.
  • Itchy nose, throat and eyes.
  • Headaches, sinus pain and dark circles under the eyes.
  • Increased mucus in the nose and throat.
  • Fatigue and malaise (general feeling of discomfort).
  • Sore throat from mucus dripping down the throat (postnasal drip).
  • Wheezing, coughing and trouble breathing.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 07/30/2020.

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