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OBJECTIVE: To determine whether better health-related quality of life (HRQL) is achieved by initiating treatment of seasonal (ragweed) rhinoconjunctivitis (hay fever) with a nasal steroid (fluticasone) backed up by a nonsedating antihistamine (terfenadine) or whether it is better to start with the antihistamine and add the nasal steroid when necessary. DESIGN: Randomized, nonblind, parallel-group management study during the 6 weeks of the ragweed pollen season in 1995. PATIENTS: Sixty-one adults with ragweed pollen hay fever recruited from patients who had participated in previous clinical studies and from those who responded to notices in the local media. SETTING: Southern Ontario. INTERVENTIONS: Nasal steroid group: 200 micrograms of fluticasone nasal spray when needed (up to 400 micrograms/d) starting about 1 week before the ragweed pollen season and continued throughout, with 1 to 2 tablets of terfenadine daily (maximum 120 mg/d) if needed. Antihistamine group: 1 60-mg tablet of terfenadine when needed (maximum 120 mg/d) starting about 1 week before the ragweed pollen season and continued throughout, with 200-400 micrograms/d of fluticasone nasal spray (maximum 400 micrograms/d) if needed. OUTCOME MEASURES: HRQL before, at the height of and toward the end of the ragweed pollen season; HRQL was measured using the Rhinoconjunctivitis Quality of Life Questionnáire. RESULTS: Overall, HRQL tended to be better in the group of patients whose first-line treatment was with fluticasone (p = 0.052), but the difference between the 2 groups was small and not clinically important. Just over half (52% [16/31]) of the patients in the fluticasone group did not need additional help with terfenadine, whereas only 13% (4/30) of those in the terfenadine group did not need additional help with fluticasone (p = 0.002). CONCLUSIONS: There is little difference in the therapeutic benefit between the 2 approaches for the treatment of ragweed pollen hay fever. Therefore, the approach to treatment should be based on patient preference, convenience and cost. Regardless of the treatment, at least 50% of patients will need to take both types of medication in combination to control symptoms adequately.