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
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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.
"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
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.