Hay fever (seasonal allergic rhinitis) is a very common condition, affecting 2 to 3 million people in Britain every year. It is caused by an allergy to pollen or sometimes mould spores. In hayfever the body's immune system overreacts to the presence of external substances, as if they were something toxic. This results in irritation and inflammation.
Hay fever often runs in families, and is also related to asthma and eczema. It is quite common to find a family with some members with asthma, some with hay fever, and some with eczema. Any individual might have more than one of these conditions.
The symptoms vary from person to person and often involve sneezing, a runny or blocked nose, red, watery, and itchy eyes, and an associated itchy throat. Very often there is also a wheezy chest, which really suggests a degree of asthma. Unfortunately the peak pollen time is the early summer when school and university examinations take place. As a result sufferers find it difficult to revise and to perform well in the actual examinations.
Different pollens are present at different times of year and thus the time that you are affected depends on the pollen to which you are allergic. Other factors which may aggravate the situation are the weather and the air quality.
There are various treatments, some of which are available over the counter from a pharmacist. Antihistamine tablets or medicine reduce the effect on the body of one of the main chemicals released by the allergic response.
There are nasal sprays which contain steroids and other substances that reduce the local inflammatory response in the nose. There are also eye drops which have similar effects on the eye. Those people with asthmatic symptoms need treatment as for asthma.
Occasionally the doctor may consider it necessary to prescribe either tablets containing steroids, or possibly an injection. These can have more serious side effects than the other treatments, so the possible benefits have to be weighed against the possible disadvantages. There are currently thought to be arguments in favour of the tablets rather than the injection.
There are injection treatments to desensitise patients against the substance to which they are allergic. Unfortunately these can bring on serious reactions, and can only be given under close hospital supervision, and are thus hardly ever used.
There are several things you can do to lessen symptoms by avoiding contact with the allergens, these include:
In the summer stay inside between 5pm and 7pm, when pollen counts are usually high. Keep windows and doors closed, especially at these times and when sleeping.
Use an air conditioner or filter when possible, at home, work, and in the car, to remove pollen and other allergens from the air.
Damp dust and vacuum your home regularly, to minimise the presence of pollen and dust.
Airing bedclothes in direct sunlight is also helpful.
Be aware of the pollen count (usually broadcast along with the weather), and avoid areas of high pollen concentration, such as long grass, lawn mowings, and trees if allergic to these. If you need to work in these environments consider wearing a mask and goggles.
Avoid unnecessary extra irritants such as smoke and chemical fumes.
- BBC Weather Centre BBC weather forecasts including pollen counts
- American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology Pollen & Mould Counts
- UK National Pollen Research Unit
- UK Met Office Pollen Forecast
- Beat your allergies (52 Brilliant ideas series), by Dr Rob Hicks
- An excellent book, written by a British General Practitioner, which is easy to read, well laid out, and full of helpful ideas.
- Understanding Allergies, by Dr Joanne Clough
- This book explains what happens in the body when an allergy occurs. It also describes the different ways of diagnosing allergy and discusses the different treatments available.