A Briefing on Hay Fever (Allergic Rhinitis)

After Labor Day, many people begin to have an increase in their allergy symptoms such as sneezing, runny nose, itchy red eyes and sometimes worsening of their asthma.

The cause of this is usually that these people are allergic to ragweed. Allergy to ragweed is commonly referred to as "hay fever," and allergists tend to refer to it as "allergic rhinitis."

Allergic rhinitis can either follow a persistent pattern where it affects people several times per week, or it can be intermittent. Allergic rhinitis may also be affected by the pollens outside such as weeds -- in particular, ragweed.

Ragweed usually starts pollinating around the middle of August each year and is found all over the United States. Its pollens can travel far distances, being carried in the wind. This means that even though you may live in a city and don't see ragweed growing, that you can still be exposed to it and have symptoms. Ragweed season typically lasts until the first frost or around mid-October.

Because ragweed typically grows in fields, those who live in the country will probably have a greater exposure.

Besides the usual allergy symptoms, some people who are allergic to ragweed also develop an itchy mouth when eating certain foods during "ragweed season." The foods that people usually complain of are fresh fruits such as melons and bananas and vegetables such as cucumber, potato and zucchini.

Having an itchy mouth is not an uncommon complaint, and it is clinically called the Oral Allergy Syndrome (OAS). Basically, it is that some of the proteins in the ragweed are similar in structure to those found in the fruits and vegetables. So, in a strange way, it is almost as if your body thinks that you are eating the ragweed when you are eating fresh melon, for example.

Cooking these foods will cause the proteins to change, so that a person can then tolerate the foods. Although symptoms from the Oral Allergy Syndrome (such as mouth and throat itching, hives around the mouth and occasional swelling of the lips) are uncomfortable, they are rarely fatal. The best way to avoid the symptoms of OAS is to avoid the foods in the ragweed season, or to cook the vegetables.

How does one treat allergic rhinitis from ragweed? Basically, the same way that we treat other allergy symptoms.

The first way is to try to avoid the ragweed pollen, which may be difficult.You can keep your windows in your home/apartment or car closed and run the air-conditioning. You can also take a shower after being outside to wash off the pollens.

However, these measures may not be enough, and the next step is to take medications such as nasal steroid sprays and anti-histamine pills. It is best to start taking these medications about two weeks before the ragweed season starts.

It is also important, as I have previously stressed, to make sure that your symptoms are secondary to ragweed allergy by visiting the allergist who will perform testing. If your ragweed allergy symptoms are not well controlled by medications, the next step is to start allergy shots, but these do not work immediately, taking about four to five months to take effect. Therefore allergy shots will help for the next fall. Again, if you have further questions, please feel free to address them to the Web site.

More on ragweed season:

Click here for more tips to avoiding symptoms during ragweed season.

Is a vaccine for ragweed allergy a possibility in the future?