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Got Hay Fever? Get to Work!

With improved over-the-counter allergy drugs, people are able to function better without allergies knocking them down.
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Matthew Hoffman, MD

Hay fever slams us every spring: Can't breathe; can't think; can't even hear very well. Do you call in sick or drag your fuzzy-brained self to the office? Or do you simply pop an allergy pill and get on with your day?

Either way, American workers have long waged a battle with hay fever. Hay fever is the fifth most common chronic disease -- topped by orthopaedic problems, sinusitis, high blood pressure, and arthritis, according to the National Academy on an Aging Society.

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Ten years ago, nearly 7 million workdays were lost because of hay fever allergies, either through absenteeism or "presenteeism" -- when workers show up but are less productive. The total cost to employers was more than $600 million in lost productivity because of allergies and taking sedating allergy medications at work.

Cheaper Medications

"At that time, the nonsedating antihistamines were prescription drugs, and oftentimes expensive, especially for people without drug coverage," says Ron Z. Goetzel, PhD, director of the Institute for Health and Productivity Studies at Cornell University Institute for Policy Research.

"That has changed over the last few years, now that Claritin -- and now the generic loratadine -- are available over the counter and less expensive," Goetzel tells WebMD. "For people with hay fever who get the right medicine and the right dosage, the amount of lost productivity has dropped to almost zero. But if you're not taking medication -- or taking the wrong medication -- there will be lost productivity."

For employers, the message is clear: They need to educate workers on allergy treatments, says Goetzel. Also, employers should make sure health plans cover prescription medications if people don't benefit from over-the-counter allergy drugs."

After all, for hay fever sufferers, the symptoms are no small matter. "If you don't have allergies, you don't realize it -- but hay fever is more than just a stuffy nose," says Karin Pacheco, MD, an allergist at the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver. There are whole-body effects that make it hard to function," she tells WebMD.

Allergies Can Hit Hard

What we know as "hay fever" is known medically as allergic rhinitis. Over the spring and summer, trees, grasses, weeds, and ragweed release their pollen. If you're sensitive, your immune system will send an army of histamines on attack. Histamines are chemicals that trigger inflammation in the sinuses, nose, and eyes.

It's a downward spiral into fits of sneezing, congestion, postnasal drip, runny nose, and itchy eyes. You may feel worse on some days than on others -- depending on what's blooming, the pollen count, and your sensitivities.

"What slows people down is the fuzzy feeling in your head ... which makes you feel disoriented, disconnected, makes it hard to focus," Pacheco says.

Pollen on the Rise

Hay fever is a public health problem that is only getting worse, as the sheer volume of pollen in the air is increasing, Pacheco tells WebMD. "With global warming, ragweed and other allergenic plants are producing more pollen -- especially in urban areas," she tells WebMD. Also, there is some evidence that air pollution (especially diesel pollution) could cause more people to develop hay fever and other allergies.

Yet only 50% of people with allergies consider it a serious medical condition, one poll showed. Less than one-third consulted an allergist or doctor the last time their symptoms acted up. Also:

  • 43% said that allergies affected their productivity at work.
  • 50% said their ability to concentrate was impaired.
  • 68% had trouble getting a good night's sleep.

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