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Spring fever

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As the sneezing season gets into full swing, Dr Trisha Macnair looks at why hay fever is on the rise and what you can do to soothe symptoms to make life a little more bearable. 

The green shoots of spring and early summer are always welcome. But for a growing number of people there’s a price to pay for the arrival of warmer weather, longer, brighter days and blooming flowers -  the misery of hay fever.

Also known as ‘seasonal allergic rhinitis’, hay fever is estimated to affect 18 million people in the UK - that’s about a quarter of the total population. And, as contributing factors such as environmental temperatures, pollution and urbanisation all increase, experts are predicting that hay fever may affect as many as 45 per cent of us by 2030. It is also thought symptoms could become more severe and last for longer.

SYMPTOM WATCH
Typical symptoms, such as a runny or stuffy nose, sneezing and itchy, watery eyes are caused by an allergic reaction to the proteins found in pollen from a variety of plants, which is made up of tiny particles released into the atmosphere. When these particles come into contact with the moist surface lining of the mouth, nose or eyes, they activate the immune system, triggering the release of histamine and other chemicals that can cause irritation and inflammation. While teenagers and young adults tend to suffer more, hay fever can affect any age and gender.

The typical pollen season varies from year to year, and, depending on weather conditions, may start as early as January and end as late as November. Grass pollen is the main hay fever trigger in the UK, typically causing symptoms from May onwards. Around a quarter of people with hay fever may also be allergic to tree pollen, which appears earlier in the year, meaning that for some symptoms may have started as early as the end of March. Pollen from weeds and spores from moulds are other triggers, although these usually appear in autumn.

FIGHT-BACK TACTICS
Unfortunately, it is impossible to remove pollen from the environment completely, so there’s no easy cure for hay fever. But there are many things that you can do to reduce your exposure to pollen, as well as the severity of your allergic response to it.

A good starting place is to figure out which types of pollen you are sensitive to. Try keeping a diary to compare the severity of symptoms of the daily pollen count for different plants found on the Met Office website during the pollen season (from March onwards) www.metoffice.gov.uk/health/public/pollen-forecast. If your symptoms are severe, your GP may send you for allergy testing. Once you know what is your personal trigger you can try to avoid it.

Check the pollen count regularly to identify high-risk (hot, dry and windy) days, when you should stay inside with the windows shut if possible. If you do go outside, wear ‘wrap-around’ sunglasses to keep pollen from your eyes, and apply a barrier balm made from beeswax around your nostrils to prevent pollen entering your nose. Change your clothes and shower as soon as you get back indoors to remove pollen from your body. Avoid hanging washing outside and groom pets frequently to remove pollen from their fur.

Avoid heavily polluted areas as much as possible when the pollen count is high, as chemicals, such as ozone and nitrogen oxide (traffic fumes), can cause a change in the grains of pollen that increases their ability to stimulate the immune system, triggering a more severe reaction. Pollutants may also make the lining of the nose more permeable to the pollen proteins and less able to clear them away. Fresh flowers or houseplants, alcohol, second-hand cigarette smoke, eye make-up and perfumes can all have a similar ‘sensitising’ effect, so avoid these if you can. Vacuum your home regularly, ideally using a machine with a high-efficiency particle-arresting (HEPA) filter, and clean surfaces with a damp cloth to collect dust and pollen.

To ensure you’re armed against surprise attacks, stock up on simple OTC medicines such as antihistamines, which reduce the release of histamine. Your pharmacist can advise you on other treatments, though if your symptoms are severe talk to your GP, who may suggest nose or eye drops containing steroids to counter inflammation, or refer you for desensitizing immunotherapy at a specialist centre. 

HERBAL HELPERS

  • A daily teaspoon of honey produced locally (containing local pollens) is said to help gradually develop immunity.
  • Try supplements of butterbur, nettle or Healthspan's Opti-Turmeric (curcumin in pure form) which all have an antihistamine effect. 
  • Gingko supplements may reduce the body’s reaction to allergens such as pollen. Quercetin has a similar effect. Good sources include red apples, onions and red wine.
  • Liquorice root, taken as a tea, can help to reduce nasal stuffiness.

combines work as a hospital physician in the field of Medicine for the Elderly with freelance medical journalism. She writes and broadcasts for BBC Radio and BBC Online. She recently completed an MA in Medical Ethics and Medical Law. More from this expert.

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