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Teens with hay fever may be more vulnerable to anxiety and depression

Hay fever is quite common and generally considered a minor health problem.

Hay fever is an allergic reaction to plant pollen in the air.
Photo by Dani Vivanco on Unsplash

Adolescents with hay fever are more likely to develop symptoms of anxiety and depression and have a lower resistance to stress than teens without the condition, according to a recent study in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

Young hay fever sufferers also tend to be more impulsive and prone to bouts of hostility (anger and aggression) than their peers, the study found.

Hay fever is quite common and generally considered a minor health problem. Yet, as these new findings underscore, the condition can have a substantial effect on people’s lives, particularly during adolescence.

“The emotional burden of hay fever can be huge for adolescents,” says Dr. Michael Blaiss, the study’s lead author and a pediatric allergist at the Medical College of Georgia, in a released statement

A common condition

Hay fever — allergic rhinitis, in medical lingo — is an allergic reaction to plant pollen in the air. The most common symptoms are nasal congestion, sneezing, a runny nose and itchy-watery eyes. Some people also develop headaches and sinus pain. 

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Symptoms of hay fever usually appear before age 20, and 40 percent of people with the condition develop symptoms before age 6. An estimated 16 million adults and 5.5 million children in the United States have hay fever, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

For their paper, Blaiss and his colleagues reviewed 25 studies conducted between 2002 and 2017 in 19 countries, including the United States, France, Turkey, Hong Kong and South Korea. The studies included surveyed information about how young people (aged 10 to 17) — and sometimes their parents — said having hay fever had affected their daily lives, particularly their emotions, sleep, friendships and academic performance.

The analysis of all that data revealed that the hay fever symptoms most bothersome to teens were the same ones cited by adults with the condition — runny nose, nasal congestion, sneezing and itchy-watery eyes — although teens tended to have more eye complaints than adults. The teens in the two large U.S. studies included in the review also cited problems with headaches and sinus pain. 

When it came to the effect of hay fever on quality of life, the analysis revealed that teens with the condition tended to have higher rates of sleep problems, anxiety and depression, as well as a lower tolerance for stressful situations, than their peers without the condition.  

“The adolescents also exhibited more hostility, impulsivity and changed their minds often,” says Blaiss. In addition, they tended, on average, to do poorer in school — although not in South Korea, where children with hay fever reported better grades than those without the condition.

In most of the studies, however, the impact of hay fever symptoms on the teenagers’ quality of life seemed to be related to how severe the symptoms were and how well the students responded to treatment.

For example, in one European study, 20 percent of the teens with mild symptoms reported that their daily activities were curtailed because of their hay fever, compared with 40 percent of those with moderate symptoms and 50 percent of those with severe ones.

A number of limitations

This review comes with plenty of caveats. The studies that it’s based on were observational, which means no direct cause and effect can be drawn from their findings. Also, the studies relied on teenagers (and/or their parents) reporting the impact of their hay fever symptoms on their daily lives. Such self-reports are not always accurate.

Furthermore, as noted in the study’s conflict-of-interest section, several of the authors of the study have connections with pharmaceutical companies that market drugs used to treat hay fever.

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Still, having hay fever can be unpleasant and disruptive for people of any age, so there’s no reason to think that young people with the condition wouldn’t be similarly affected — or even more affected, given that adolescence is a time of social vulnerability.

Parents may want to take note and be more understanding of the subtle — and not so subtle — ways their child’s hay fever may be impacting their daily activities.

“Adolescents aren’t ‘big children’ or ‘small adults,’” says Blaiss. “They have very specific needs, and allergists can help relieve symptoms that can cause suffering. Adolescence is an important developmental period and controlling symptoms can help with daily activities such as homework and sports practices.”

FMI: The study can be read in full on the website of the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.