Healthy Articles: Give hay fever the heave-ho

Words: Hannah Fox [in house]
Experts: John Collard

John Collard is clinical director of Allergy UK, and has worked in allergy clinics for 23 years. He also works as a nurse practitioner in West Yorkshire. Visit www.allergyuk.org or call 01322 619898.

This common seasonal allergy can disrupt your life, and more and more of us are becoming affected. Find out why, plus read the latest expert tips on easing symptoms.

Sneezing, running nose and itchy eyes are just some of the symptoms of hay fever, an allergy that affects 25 per cent of adults and 40 per cent of young people. However, all too often this common allergy is dismissed as just a minor inconvenience, when in fact it can cause misery. A YouGov survey suggests that up to two million people with hay fever feel less affectionate in relationships and up to 600,000 people have had an argument due to their symptoms. Hay fever can also affect your child's education. A study in 2007 found students studying for their summer GCSE exams were 40 per cent more likely to drop a grade compared with their winter mocks, because they were suffering hay fever symptoms. What's more, hay fever is becoming more prevalent. In the last 20 years, the number of hay fever sufferers has doubled. Experts based at the National Pollen and Aerobiology Research Unit in Worcester believe that by 2060, up to 70 per cent of the population could have hay fever.

Pollen problem

So why can something as tiny as a pollen grain cause such a problem? Hay fever is caused when your immune system overreacts to your body coming into contact with airborne pollen articles, and mistakes them for a foreign body, such as a bacteria or a virus. Firstly, the body releases the chemical histamine, which triggers an inflammatory response, causing sneezing, a runny nose and red, watery, itchy eyes. The histamine acts in the short term, so if you go indoors your symptoms will settle down. However, the body also releases the chemical prostaglandin and leukotrienes (inflammatory molecules), the effects of which can be felt a few hours later in the form of a blocked nose or headache.Grass, tree or weed pollens trigger hay fever, with grass pollen being the most common allergen affecting 95 per cent of hay fever sufferers. The grass pollen season runs from May to August. However, 25 per cent of those with hay fever will be allergic to tree pollens, which are released from February through to June. Finally, 20 per cent of hay fever sufferers will be sneezing during September and October when weed pollens are released. If you're unlucky enough to be allergic to all three types of pollen, you could potentially be sneezing from February to October.

Pinpointing the triggers

Hay fever is inherited - so you either have the hay fever genes or you don't. Allergies are very much a disease of childhood - your first instance of hay fever will probably be as a youngster or teenager - and it is possible to grow out of them as your immune system changes and you become more tolerant. However, there is an increasing incidence of adults being struck down by hay fever for the first time because they have the hay fever gene, but it's not yet been triggered. These triggers include:

  • Pollution: The chemicals found in diesel and petrol fumes combine with pollen particles increasing the body's inflammatory reaction to them. Pollution also traps pollen particles in the atmosphere, particularly in towns and cities, and holds it there.
  • Climate change: As the earth warms up, it's having a massive effect on both the types of plants that are grown in this country, and when the hay fever season starts. Plants such as ambrosia (ragweed) are new species that release lots of pollen. Longer, warmer spring and summer seasons mean trees and flowers bloom earlier with pollens being recorded in the air from February right through to October.
  • Hygiene: This hypothesis is based on the idea that hay fever is just one of the conditions caused because we are too clean so people are growing up without being exposed to many germs. As a result, our immune system doesn't develop in the right way and allergies are more likely.
  • Nutritional deficiencies: There have been studies suggesting that deficiencies in certain nutrients could worsen allergies such as hay fever. This could be the case with both magnesium and vitamin D.

Control it

If you're dreading the hay fever season, try these tips:

  • Try to avoid going out when the pollen count is high.
  • Wear wraparound sunglasses to keep pollen out of the eyes.
  • Change your clothes when you come indoors as it often catches on them.
  • Wash your hair in the evenings to get rid of pollen.
  • Put petroleum jelly or special barrier gel round the nostrils as it catches the pollen particles and stops them being fully inhaled.
  • Keep air-conditioning in the car on the 're-circulate' setting.
  • Start taking hay fever medications a few weeks before the season starts, and continue taking even when pollen counts are low.

Try:

  • Anti-histamines help relieve sneezing and itching eyes by inhibiting the release of histamine.
  • Steroidal nasal sprays will relieve a stuffy, swollen nose.
  • Homeopathy may have some effect with hay fever symptoms, according to some studies, especially when used in combination with conventional remedies.
  • A study published in the British Medical Journal found the herbal remedy butterbur was as effective as anti-histamines, but without the sedative effects.
  • Quercetin is a naturally occurring plant pigment that helps reduce the wheezing and sneezing of hay fever as it contains flavanoids, thought to help stop the cells in the immune system from releasing histamine - and so reduce the allergic symptoms. Quercetin is found in tea, apples and peppers, or as a supplement.
  • Eyebright is believed to help reduce hay fever symptoms because it contains quercetin and has astringent and anti-inflammatory abilities.
  • Feverfew is probably better known as a headache treatment, but its anti-inflammatory effects mean it's good for symptoms such as a stuffy nose.
  • Chamomile teabags placed on the eyes, can help to soothe the itchy feeling you get from hay fever, and reduce redness.
  • Red light phototherapy involves inserting two narrow red light probes into your nostrils. The light reduces inflammation in the nasal membranes and so helps reduce hay fever symptoms.
  • Immunotherapy is often a last option. Very small amounts of pollen are either injected into the body, or ingested in a tablet form, to gradually desensitise the immune system to pollen. You have to be referred to an allergy clinic in order to receive this treatment.

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