Natural remedies for hay fever

Published: May 2009

While some of us marvel at all the new flowers and trees in bloom, others suffer from hay fever—an allergic reaction to pollen and mold that flourishes with the arrival of spring, summer, and fall. Itchy eyes, a runny nose, sneezing, and other hay-fever symptoms may have you running to the drugstore for relief. But hay fever natural remedies and herbs can also offer some help.

Irrigate your nose

When you have an allergic reaction to something that you've inhaled, your immune system reacts much the same way it would if a virus had entered your body. One way to calm your system is to try to steer clear of pollen. Another way is to regularly flush it out of your nose with salt water.

There are different methods for clearing your nose with a nasal saline irrigation device. Nasal washes are available in over-the-counter squeeze bottles at drugstores. Another method uses a bulb syringe to push saline into the nostrils. And a third involves using a small pot to pour saline wash into one nostril and let it drain naturally through the other.

The effects of nasal irrigation may not last as long as over-the-counter and prescription allergy drugs like antihistamines or corticosteroid nasal sprays. And they aren't as effective as long-term treatments like allergy injections and a newer therapy called sublingual immunotherapy—a treatment that builds immunity to pollen and is similar in strategy to injections but uses drops placed under the tongue.

According to recent studies, however, people who use nasal irrigation for hay-fever symptoms do experience some relief and require lower doses of allergy medication. As an added benefit, a 2008 study of 401 children found that a nasal wash helped to treat cold and flu symptoms, and over the next three months the children had fewer nasal and cold symptoms and used fewer medications.

Nasal irrigation should help relieve some allergy symptoms and clear your nasal passages, but you may also need to use adjunct treatments, especially for symptoms unrelated to your nose, such as itchy eyes.

Explore natural remedies with caution

Studies of natural remedies are growing but there is little government oversight of the potency, purity, and identity of dietary supplements compared with that of prescription and over-the-counter drugs. So you should exercise caution with any herbs or other dietary supplements, especially with young children, and avoid taking them if you are pregnant.

Remember that some "natural" remedies may contain dangerous ingredients and can harm people who have certain allergies or medical conditions or take certain medications. Be sure to consult a doctor or pharmacist before using any supplements or hay fever natural remedies.

Here's how our Natural Medicine Ratings, from the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, the leading medical reference on natural remedies, rates the effectiveness and safety of products commonly used to treat hay fever. Products are rated on the following scale: Effective, Likely Effective, Possibly Effective, Possibly Ineffective, Likely Ineffective, Ineffective, and Insufficient Evidence. Note that the material used in most clinical trials is purified and weighted, unlike what is sold in many health-food stores and pharmacies. You should look for the USP verification mark on any dietary supplement you buy. Otherwise, there is no guarantee that what's on the label is really in the bottle.

Butterbur: Possibly effective
Butterbur, one of the best-studied natural medicines for allergies, may ease hay-fever symptoms, possibly by reducing levels of histamines and leukotrienes, chemicals that can set off an allergic response. But the long-term safety of butterbur is unknown. And some preparations may also contain certain chemicals, called pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs), that can harm the liver and lungs. If you decide to try it, look for products containing at least 7.5 milligrams of petasin and isopetasin, the presumed active ingredients. And only use butterbur products that are labeled free of PAs. Steer clear of the herb if you're allergic to ragweed; it's related to that plant family and could produce an allergic response. Finally, you should not take butterbur if you have liver disease or if you're pregnant or breast-feeding.

Phleum pratense (Timothy grass): Possibly effective
The pollen of the phleum pratense plant is used to reduce allergy symptoms. Some clinical studies show that taken in small doses, phleum pratense can desensitize the body to grass-pollen allergies and reduce allergic symptoms in patients with seasonal grass-pollen symptoms as well as asthma. Phleum pratense is possibly safe for most adults and children ages 3 to 16 years, but it can cause adverse reactions, including itching of the mouth and nose, and irritation of the throat, as well as blisters in the mouth and a runny nose. Do not take phleum pratense if you are pregnant or breast-feeding.

Tinospora cordifolia (Indian tinospora, moonseed): Possibly effective
A shrub plant native to India, tinospora cordifolia is thought to boost the immune system, and there is some evidence that it can decrease hay-fever symptoms including sneezing, itchy and runny nose, and stuffiness. Tinospora cordifolia is known to be safe if taken for up to eight weeks, but beyond that its safety is not known. It should not be taken if you are pregnant or breast-feeding, if you have an immune disorder, or if you are scheduled for surgery within two weeks. Tinospora cordifolia should also be avoided if you are taking medication for diabetes or drugs that are meant to suppress your immune system. Be sure to talk with your doctor if you aren't sure.

Echinacea: Insufficient evidence
Though some research has suggested that this common herb acts as an anti-inflammatory, there's no solid evidence that it eases hay-fever symptoms. Echinacea may also interact with drugs that suppress the immune system, such as cyclosporine (Sandimmune and generic). People with an immune-system disorder should avoid it, as should those with ragweed allergies because it's also related to that plant family.

Stinging nettle leaf: Insufficient evidence
Evidence suggests that extracts of this plant may fight inflammation and modestly curb hay-fever symptoms. But it's still too soon to tell, so don't rely on it. Avoid stinging nettle if you're diabetic; it may increase the effects of some diabetes medication. It may also decrease the effectiveness of the blood-thinning drug warfarin (Coumadin and generic).

Grape-seed extract: Possibly ineffective
Derived from parts of the grape plant, grape-seed extract is sometimes advertised as a natural antihistamine. But it does not appear to quell hay-fever symptoms.

Many experts recommend first trying better-established strategies to treat hay-fever symptoms. Prescription or over-the-counter allergy medication may provide relief. For more information, see our Best Buy Drugs report on allergy treatments.

Consider acupuncture

Based on traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture is one of the oldest healing practices, but it's still relatively new to Western medicine. By inserting the tip of very thin needles into specific points on the body, acupuncture aims to restore the body's flow of energy, thought to affect a variety of health problems, including how the immune system responds to allergies.

Though there isn't a great deal of research on acupuncture treatment for hay fever, recent studies show some promise. For example, a small study compared adult patients who received weekly acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine with patients who unknowingly had fake acupuncture. It found that the real acupuncture and Chinese-herb patients noticed that the severity of their hay fever was significantly less pronounced and that their quality of life was significantly improved. And in another small study of children who were treated twice a week with real vs. sham acupuncture for seasonal allergy symptoms, the children who received the real treatment had fewer symptoms.

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