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Butterbur and Allergies: Can It Help With Hay Fever (Rhinitis)?

Written by Jim Duncan, MSW | Last updated:

Butterbur is a shrub that can be found in Europe and Asia. Can it help you manage your allergy symptoms? Read on to find out more about butterbur, allergies, and how it’s connected to genetics.

An Introduction to Butterbur and Allergies

For your allergies, I offer you…a shrubbery! In the Middle Ages, the shrub, butterbur, was used to aid against the plague and fever, and in the 17th century it was used for coughs and asthma [1]. Now, what may surprise you is that you can still use butterbur for allergies!

Its name, appropriately enough, comes from the fact that its large leaves were used to wrap up butter to help keep it from melting.

These days, while you may not get strange knights offering you butterbur shrubberies, you will find supplements for butterbur, extracted from the root and/or leaf, that get used for hay fever as well as migraines.

What Is Hay Fever (Rhinitis)?

Wait, can allergies cause fever? You shouldn’t be put off by the name. Hay fever actually has little to do with hay, nor does it give you a fever. Rhinitis literally means an inflammation of the nose.

You might be more familiar with a term you’re likely to hear on your local news, which is “seasonal allergies.” They’re both just common terms for allergic rhinitis, which sounds more serious, and should honestly be taken that way.

When you think of rhinitis, what usually comes to mind is an allergic reaction to pollen, weeds, flowers, and other outdoor plant life one finds in the spring and summer months. But rhinitis can also be caused by dust mites, pet dander, fungi, and mold. The typical hay fever symptoms are [2]:

  • Runny nose and nasal congestion
  • Watery, itchy, red eyes (allergic conjunctivitis)
  • Sneezing
  • Cough
  • Itchy nose, roof of mouth or throat
  • Swollen, blue-colored skin under the eyes (allergic shiners)
  • Postnasal drip
  • Fatigue

They can be immediate and last for weeks, if not months. It’s not hard to imagine that having symptoms like this for periods of months can be difficult, if not debilitating to deal with.

Luckily, there are strategies you can use to manage your symptoms. Should you try butterbur for allergies? Well, maybe your genetics have something to say about that.

What Causes Allergies Like Hay Fever?

What causes you to have a particular allergy to something, whether it be pollen, food, medications, bee stings, or any other number of things, is still unknown.

It is known, however, that allergies tend to run in families. In fact, up to 84% of differences in people’s chances of having allergies may be attributed to genetics [3].

We do know that it’s your body’s immune system treating something most humans find typical, as a harmful invader. The tissues in your nose experience inflammation, mucus is produced, you sneeze to clear the “irritants” out of your nasal passages. It’s all for nothing, though your body believes otherwise.

Who Is Susceptible to Hay Fever?

Tens of millions of people have an allergy to something. For example, up to 20% of all people have an allergy to cats or dogs [4]. Around 67% of US households now own a pet [5], so it’s not hard to imagine how broad the effect is of allergies.

But just because you’ve never suffered from allergies before, it doesn’t mean you’re completely safe. Even though allergies are very heritable, you can come down with one at any point in your life, and we still don’t know why.

Imagine the frustration of having a pet your whole life and then one day, waking up after 70 years and discovering you can’t handle being around them anymore.

Because of this, it is far easier to get a handle on symptoms than try to prevent them. One natural antihistamine that can help you is that butter-wrapping shrub, butterbur.

How Butterbur For Allergies Works

The species of butterbur used today is called Petasites hybridus. The compound derived from its roots and leaves is called, unsurprisingly, petasin. Petasin is what generates the anti-inflammatory effect that makes using butterbur for hay fever worthwhile [6].

Butterbur uses

Clinical studies have shown that taking a butterbur supplement can have a noticeable effect on hay fever symptoms [7], and it is comparable to some antihistamines in effectiveness [8].

One thing to keep in mind if you’re considering taking butterbur for allergies. It was discovered that it contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PA’s), a natural defense mechanism that plants use to defend themselves against insect herbivores [9].

This substance is toxic for humans as well, so it is important to verify that any butterbur supplements you wish to take are free of PA’s [1].

How Do My Genetics Affect Allergies?

Much of what allergies are comes from your immune and inflammatory responses. There are a number of genes involved in these processes, like the following for your immune system:

And these for inflammation:

There’s a particular BCL6 gene variant that is linked to allergies. It may lead to an imbalanced immune response by raising levels of IL-4, a crucial immune protein. Butterbur may help by reducing IL-4 [10, 11, 12, 13].

Allergies are a serious problem worthy of serious attention. It’s far more than sneezing at the blooming flowers. So, you should look into your genetics to find a solid foundation from which to start.

Please note: Make sure to get butterbur extract that’s labeled as “pyrrolizidine alkaloid (PA)-free.” PAs are toxic to your lungs, liver, and other organs. Avoid butterbur if you’re allergic to ragweed, daisies, or chrysanthemums because it belongs to the same plant family [1, 14].

What Do My Genes Have To Say About Butterbur And Allergies?

We’ve shared a few genes that can impact allergies, but the truth is there are too many to keep count of by yourself. If you’re wondering if you should use butterbur for allergies based on your DNA, SelfDecode may help find out what strategies work best for you.

The SelfDecode Allergy Report can help you find out if you have a higher risk for allergies and tells you what you can do about it. You’ll receive your genetic risk score based on nearly 2,500 genetic variants and personalized recommendations to help you improve your allergy symptoms.

Butterbur for allergies recommendation

Not only that, but SelfDecode also explains how strongly your recommendations will impact your health specifically. This way, you can know what to prioritize, and it’s all backed by science.

Avoiding allergens altogether can be tough, so why not look at your DNA to see what strategies work for you to help you lessen the impact allergies have on your life?

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About the Author

Jim Duncan

Jim completed his M.S.W. in Social Work Administration at Portland State University. He has always been interested in analyzing social issues, and he helped fund and start a program against domestic violence. He has also conducted many public speaking sessions about violence against women, and published 3 fiction novels. Inspired by SelfDecode’s mission to make precision health a reality, he decided to use his natural writing ability to help teach the world about the power and promise of genomics. His areas of interest include science-based writing,  astronomy, and genomics.


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