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Can acupuncture help if you have hay fever?

Acupuncture might make some small improvement in hay fever, when used in addition to antihistamine medicine, a small study suggests. But there are problems with the study that make it hard to rely on the results.

BMJ Group News

What do we know already?

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Hay fever, or seasonal allergic rhinitis, is caused by an allergic reaction to pollen or mould that is in the air in higher amounts during the spring or summer. The symptoms affect the eye, nose, and airways and cause problems including red itchy eyes, sneezing, coughing, and wheezing.

Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese treatment, where a trained acupuncturist puts sterile needles into your skin. Some people believe this encourages the release of natural chemicals that help reduce the symptoms of hay fever. However, there’s little research to show whether it works.

This latest study divided 422 people with hay fever into three groups. One group took an antihistamine drug called cetirizine. Another had sham (or pretend) acupuncture, where the needles are not put into the usual acupuncture points, as well as cetirizine whenever they needed it. A third group had real acupuncture as well as cetirizine.

People who initially only had medication also had 12 sessions of real acupuncture between weeks eight and 16, so that all trial groups would receive some form of acupuncture (real or sham). The researchers then asked people about their symptoms at the end of treatment, eight weeks after the end of treatment, and again in the allergy season a year later to test if acupuncture had any long-term effects. People’s symptoms were measured using questionnaires.

What does the new study say?

After eight weeks, compared to the other treatments and combination of treatments, acupuncture did improve people’s symptoms. People who had acupuncture reported more improvement in their symptoms compared to before they had treatment, but this improvement was small. On average, the symptom scores were less than one point different on a scale of one to seven. People who used acupuncture said they needed to take less antihistamine medication than people who had other treatments. The difference was the equivalent of taking one or two fewer tablets of low-dose cetirizine a week.

There were no differences between the symptoms experienced by the groups after 16 weeks in the first year. In the following hay fever season, people who had acupuncture had smaller improvements in their symptoms when compared to before they had treatment.

How reliable is the research?

This type of study, comparing people who have been randomly chosen to have different treatments, is generally the best way to find out if a treatment works. However, as this study was small and everyone in it took both an antihistamine and had some type of acupuncture, it’s difficult to draw any conclusions from it.

What does this mean for me?

The results of this study are not clear enough to say whether having acupuncture is a helpful addition to taking antihistamine medicine for people with hay fever.

Published on February 19, 2013

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