Health Watch: Hay Fever Season Is Here

By ALPA Staff

Do you routinely experience sneezing and coughing this time of year? You may suffer from a common allergy called “hay fever.” Those with this seasonal affliction, also known as allergic rhinitis, often see the telltale signs in the spring. These changes increase pollen production from trees, grasses, and weeds, which in turn trigger the condition. While there’s no cure for hay fever, there are steps you can take to limit the effects of its symptoms and help you keep flying the line.

The Mayo Clinic says, “When you have allergies, your immune system makes antibodies that identify a particular allergen as harmful, even though it isn’t.” In the case of hay fever, the body responds to pollen by releasing histamines into the blood, which can result in the inflammation and swelling of mucus membranes around the eyes, nose, and throat. In defending itself, the body attempts to either trap or eject the invading allergens.

Hay fever symptoms include

  • sneezing accompanied with a runny nose or congestion,
  • coughing and postnasal drip,
  • an irritated nose and throat, and
  • itchy, red, and watery eyes and dark undereye circles.

Hay fever season runs from spring through early fall (your location will determine the specific time and duration of the allergy’s lifecycle), and it’s estimated that between 10 to 30 percent of the global population suffers from this condition. Those with hay fever are more susceptible to allergic respiratory diseases like asthma and may experience difficulties sleeping, which can promote chronic fatigue.

A year-round variation of hay fever called perennial rhinitis is also characterized by sneezing and a runny nose. Substances that cause this allergic reaction tend to be found indoors and include dust mites and pet dander, often found on household surfaces like furniture upholstery and carpeting. Also, mold can be found in damp areas like basements and bathrooms.

Protect yourself by keeping your doors and windows closed. Run the air conditioning in both your house and car. Have someone else cut your grass and check pollen forecasts to avoid outdoor activities when levels are high. It’s also a good idea to shower and wash your hair at night.

If symptoms persist, a variety of nonprescription medications can help, but make sure you adhere to all FAA and medical guidelines. The Aviation Medicine Advisory Service (AMAS), ALPA’s Aeromedical Office, notes that U.S. airline pilots will need to report any hay fever medication taken on FAA Form 8500-8, Block 17 (“Medications”). Be sure to include dosage levels and the absence of side effects.

Canadian airline pilots aren’t required to report nonsedating medications that address hay fever symptoms. However, if a stronger medication is required, consult with your medical aviation examiner first.

Regarding over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, AMAS notes that nonsedating oral antihistamines block the body’s reaction to allergens. Drugs in this category include Claritin, Clarinex, and Allegra and are approved for use. The “D” form of these medications contain decongestants such as pseudoephedrine and are allowed by the FAA. Approved nonsteroid nasal sprays include Cromolyn to relieve itchy eyes, but see how these medications affect you before you fly.

Nasal steroid sprays, available as OTC and as prescribed medications, are very effective if started several days to weeks before allergy season and used continuously throughout the season. They’re convenient and allowed by the FAA. OTC brands include Flonase, Nasacort, and Rhinocort.

Decongestants containing pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) can be used while flying if you can adequately clear your ears before flying. Any drugs with sedating side effects are not approved. Antihistamines like chlorpheniramine (Clortrimaton, CTM) and diphenhydramine (Benadryl) can make you drowsy. Zyrtec (certirazine) is marketed as nonsedating but is not allowed by the FAA.

As a general rule, play it safe and see how all approved medications affect you before you fly.

For more information about hay fever and allergies, associated medications, and FAA policy, contact AMAS at 303-341-4435, Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., mountain time or visit An article titled “Allergies” can be accessed from the Medical Article search function on the AMAS website.

Canadian ALPA members can contact David Noble, the Association’s pilot health consultant, in ALPA’s Toronto, Ont., office, toll-free at 1-800-561-9576.

This article was originally published in the April 2018 issue of Air Line Pilot.

Read the latest Air Line Pilot (PDF)