WEST PALM BEACH, Fla., April 27 (UPI) -- Hay fever might be seen as a seasonal annoyance, but for the more than 20 million Americans who have allergies -- the itchy, watering eyes, sneezing and coughing -- it adds up to as many as 4 million days of lost work a year.
That's just the start of the cost of hay fever, though, experts told United Press International Friday.
"Allergies such as hay fever cost untold millions of hours in lost productivity among people who go to work sniffling and sneezing," said Dr. Jordan Josephson, a sinus and allergy specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital, New York.
"And don't forget about the toll on children in schools who miss classes or don't perform well in class due to hay fever and other seasonal allergies," said Josephson, author of the new book "Sinus Relief Now!"
In a new study of nearly 577 people with hay fever symptoms, including sneezing, watery eyes and runny and itchy noses, researchers determined that the average worker lost an hour of work per week during peak hay fever season.
Multiply that by 20 million to 50 million people with allergies and the loss of work is enormous, said Sheryl Szeinbach, professor of pharmacy practice and administration at Ohio State University.
"That means the potential loss of millions of hours of work productivity, not to mention the associated economic costs," she wrote in her study on the Web site for the Primary Care Respiratory Journal.
Szeinbach said hay fever symptoms can disrupt all areas of life, and study participants cited a lack of sleep and a negative impact on their overall health as the two main reasons for missing work.
She suggested that people who suspect they have hay fever get an allergy test, either from a primary care doctor or an allergist. In previous work, she found that some people with allergy-like symptoms don't actually have allergies. Allergy-type symptoms can come from multiple sources, including perfumes, sinus infections, exercise, dust, or cold air, even if a person doesn't have an allergy.
"Diagnostic testing followed by the right kind of treatment may mean less time out of work," she said.
Szeinbach and her colleagues collected questionnaires from 577 people whose medical and prescription records showed a diagnosis of allergic rhinitis. Participants were asked about the severity and type of allergy symptoms they had, and whether they had seen a physician for treatment.
The researchers placed participant responses into one of three groups, 240 patients received care from a family physician, 172 patients saw an allergist for treatment and 165 chose to self-manage their symptoms.
Work time missed due to allergy symptoms ranged from zero to 32 hours a week. Although collectively the participants missed an average of one hour of work per week during the year-long study, most hours were missed during peak hay fever seasons, namely spring and fall. This may result in missing a couple to several days of work a week during allergy season.
People under the care of a family physician reported a greater severity of symptoms than did patients treated by an allergist as well as those who self-managed their allergy symptoms.
"Family physicians tend to be the gatekeepers to allergists, and as such, are more likely to have initial contact with allergy patients," Szeinbach said. "So it makes sense that family physicians would see patients with a broad spectrum of allergy symptoms."
A lack of sleep and a decrease in quality of life had the greatest impact on a person's ability to work, regardless of the treatment group they were in. Participants also cited watery eyes and sneezing as having a moderately negative effect on their productivity at work.
Josephson told UPI that people with hay fever can reduce their risk of symptoms during high pollen days by changing out of pollen-laden garments and taking showers to wash pollen from their hair when they get home from work or play.
He also said they should use air conditioning in cars, rather than ride with open windows, and avoid open windows in houses on breezy days. He also said that people should remember to frequently change their air conditioner filters.
Josephson suggested that patients should consult board-certified specialists in allergies or otolaryngology -- ear, nose and throat doctors -- who can help determine types of allergies and treatment.
Szeinbach's study was funded by Phadia US Inc., manufacturer of allergy tests. Szeinbach said she and her colleagues have no ties to the company beyond the scope of this work.