It starts with a slight tickle at the back of your throat. Soon it’s fullblown itching, followed by irritated red eyes and bouts of sneezing and coughing. That’s when you know it’s officially hay fever season.
Many are happy the dark, cold months of winter are behind us, but for hay fever sufferers, spring and summer can be a snot-filled nightmare. It’s more than just the irritation of sneezing, a runny nose and itchy eyes. Hay fever can affect your quality of sleep, ability to concentrate, and can even cause breathing difficulties, low blood pressure and asthma attacks. And if it feels like your symptoms are getting worse year on year, you could be right.
“Hay fever can worsen with age as the immune system can become more reactive to specific allergens,” says Professor Claudia Gray, an allergist at Vincent Pallotti Hospital in Cape Town. She adds that hotter pollen seasons, thanks to global warming, may also contribute to worsening symptoms. Pollen loves hanging about in hot air, whereas wet weather supresses it during winter. Here’s more about what hay fever is and, although there’s no cure, what you can do to help ease those aggravating symptoms.
WHAT IS HAY FEVER?
The technical term is allergic rhinitis to pollens. Allergies occur when the immune system overreacts to a perceived threat. In the case of hay fever, the threat is pollen from grasses, trees, flowers or weeds. Too much histamine, a chemical in the body, is then released to try to combat the pollen threat and this is what causes inflammation in the lining of the nose and sinuses. The development of allergies depends on genetic and environmental factors, Gray says.
“Those with a family history of allergic rhinitis have a higher risk of developing it,” she adds. People who live in areas with higher levels of traffic pollution are also at greater risk. The tiny particles released by fuel can irritate the lining of the nasalpassages and lungs, making them even more sensitive.
Hay fever can last from August until March. On hot and dry days allergens stay in the air for longer, and windy days can cause allergens to be spread around more. Pollen counts are higher earlier in the morning and again at about sunset.
You may have accepted the symptoms as part of your life, but the good news is they can be reduced. The first step is to confirm which type of allergy is producing your rhinitis, suggests Dr Candice Royal of Vincent Pallotti Hospital in Cape Town. “By correctly identifying the allergen, you can prepare for it and limit your symptoms,” she says. Allergic rhinitis can also be caused by dust mites, animal dander and mould.
“Correct diagnosis can be confirmed with a simple skin prick test or blood tests. In most cases, rhinitis symptoms can then be well controlled with medication that treats the underlying allergic inflammation,” Royal adds. Anti-inflammatory nose sprays can be used daily to help with inflammation in your sinus passages. These take a few days to work and can be used from the beginning of the season – before symptoms show up – to help prevent an itchy nose. Nasal washouts (where you pass water through your nasal passages) are cost effective and can be done as often as you like. They can also be done while using a nose spray and medication. They keep the membranes of your nose and sinuses moist and clean, acting as a defence against allergens. They also thin the mucous, making it easier to blow out. A good daily routine is to do a nasal washout, blow your nose and then administer a nose spray. Antihistamine pills or syrup treat itching and sneezing but not the problem of the underlying inflammation. Some medications can also cause drowsiness, so are not ideal for school-going children or when you’re at work. Newer, non-sedating antihistamines are safer to use and you can get them at a pharmacy without a prescription. It’s also a good idea to start the medication at the beginning of the pollen season.
See your doctor if you’ve tried these strategies and they haven’t worked. You might then qualify for allergen immunotherapy. This comes in the form of prescribed medication, taken daily, to help your body become resistant to an allergy. This treatment can be costly and take up to three years to work.
OTHER WAYS TO LESSEN SYMPTOMS
Try to avoid spending too many hours outdoors on dry and windy days, very early in the morning or at sunset. This is when the pollen count is at its highest. Keep doors and windows in your home closed during peak pollen times. Apply petroleum jelly around the rim of your nose. This can act as a pollen trap. Don’t engage in intense outdoor exercise during the spring months. The faster you breathe, the more allergens you inhale. Begin your allergy medication a few weeks before the pollen season starts to help minimise the symptoms. It’s also a good idea to discuss an allergy plan of attack with your GP.
Sweep or vacuum your home often. Avoid mowing the lawn or raking leaves, as they stir up pollen. Wash your bedding every week in hot water. If you can, replace wall-to-wall carpeting in your home and wash rugs often. When outside, wear sunglasses and a hat to limit your pollen exposure. When you come in from outside, get rid of pollen that might be attached to you. Change out of your shoes and clothing, and take a bath or shower