Hay fever, also called allergic rhinitis or seasonal allergies, is an allergic response to indoor or outdoor airborn allergens, such as pollen, dust mites, or pet dander. This causes cold-like symptoms such as runny nose, congestion, sneezing and sinus pressure. For many people, hay fever is seasonal, worse at certain times of year, especially in the spring, summer or fall. But some people experience hay fever year-round. Hay fever affects about 1 in 5 people and can begin at any age but is most likely to develop in childhood or early adulthood.

Hay fever is due to an over-reactivity of the immune system. The immune system mistakenly identifies a harmless airborne substance as something harmful, and then starts producing allergy-causing antibodies in a process called sensitization. Every time the body comes in contact with the substance after that, these antibodies recognize it and signal the immune system to react, releasing chemicals (such as histamine) that lead to the irritating symptoms of hay fever.

Hay fever can be triggered by either seasonal or year-round (perennial) allergens. Seasonal triggers include tree pollen, grass pollen, weed pollen, and spores from fungi and molds, which can be worse in warm-weather months. Year-round triggers include dust mites, cockroaches, pet dander, or spores from indoor and outdoor fungi and molds. Symptoms of hay fever usually develop immediately after exposure to allergens and often start or worsen at a particular time of year, such as in the spring when they are triggered by tree pollen, grasses, or weeds. People with sensitivities to indoor allergens such as dust mites, cockroaches, mold or pet dander may have year-round symptoms.

Common symptoms include runny nose and nasal congestion, watery or itchy eyes, sneezing, cough, itchy nose, roof of mouth or throat, sinus pressure and facial pain, swollen, blue-colored skin under the eyes (allergic shiners), and decreased sense of smell or taste. More intrusive are symptoms of sleeplessness, fatigue, and irritability. Conventional treatment may involve over-the-counter and/or prescription medications to relieve symptoms. Medications may include nasal or pill-form corticosteroids to treat and prevent the inflammation symptoms, antihistamines for itching, sneezing, and runny nose, decongestants, or medications that have an effect on the immune system.

With Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the lungs, kidney, and immune system often play a role in the cause of hay fever. Hay fever is very often due to a kidney deficiency because the kidneys are responsible for breathing as well as sneezing. The kidneys also play a role in our immune system so when the kidneys are weak, our immunity is affected. In the case of hay fever, this manifests as a hyper-reactive immune response. The more severe the kidney deficiency, the more frequently the allergic reactions are experienced- this includes year-round allergies to allergens such as dust, fungus, or animals.

A kidney deficiency leaves the body susceptible to external environmental invasions, leading to an invasion of wind in the nose, and this is when allergy symptoms begin to occur. Wind-cold pattern will produce symptoms of sneezing, profuse runny nose with white-watery discharge, pale complexion, stuffed nose, slight headache and no thirst. Wind-heat pattern will lead to sneezing, runny nose with white-watery discharge, itchy throat, itchy red eyes, and slight thirst.

During allergy season, frequent acupuncture treatments focus on alleviating the symptoms experienced and often yield a quick response. Patients may notice a decrease in their nose stuffiness, sneezes, and number of itching episodes around the eyes, as well as an increase in overall energy levels. Outside of allergy season, treatments may be less frequent and focus on correcting the underlying imbalance in order to strengthen the body and boost the immune system in order to prevent future allergic reactions from reoccurring. Acupuncture offers effective relief for hay fever, either as an alternative to conventional methods of treatment, or in conjunction with them, and for sufferers of hay fever, is well worth considering.

James Kaufman is a Registered Acupuncturist at Okanagan Acupuncture Centre, 1625 Ellis St, downtown Kelowna, BC.