How to cope with seasonal allergies

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According to the South African Allergy Society, as many as 20–30% of South Africans suffer from Allergic Rhinitis, otherwise known as hay fever.  

“Over 500 million people worldwide suffer from hay fever, with children and adults 30 to 40 years old, experiencing the worst symptoms, says Allison Veinings, Executive Director of the Self-Medication Manufacturers Association of South Africa (SMASA).

What are seasonal allergies?

“Allergies result when the immune system identifies a foreign substance, such as dust or pollen, incorrectly, then classifies it as harmful and treats it as such,” explains Veinings.

Hay fever in particular is the result of outdoor allergens such as pollen, and is periodic in nature. Grass is one of the main triggers of hay fever in summer, with allergic conjunctivitis (the allergic inflammation of the delicate membrane covering the inner and external part of the eyelid) being the most common seasonal allergy. More prevalent among those with asthma, eczema and hay fever, its symptoms include redness and excessive watering of the eyes, swelling of the eyelids and whites of the eye, and itchiness.

Winter allergies cause similar symptoms to summer allergies i.e. an itchy nose and eyes, sneezing and watery eyes, and are generally triggered by the use of heaters or fireplaces – the mould spores and insect parts that are often trapped in these objects are released into the air and find their way into the nose, setting off a reaction. Other indoor triggers are animals and mites.

The problem with winter allergy symptoms is that they can easily be misdiagnosed as a common cold or flu. If symptoms persist for longer than 10 days, it is more likely an allergy than a cold or flu. If not treated and medicated correctly, allergies can linger for weeks or even months. 

Diagnosis and treatment

“Following the timeline of how and when irritations start can highlight whether someone is a seasonal allergy sufferer,” says Veinings. “The best remedy for allergies would obviously be to avoid allergens completely, however as this is not always possible, a sound knowledge of self-medication and responsible self-care is key for hay fever sufferers,” she concludes.

SMASA, which advocates responsible self-care throughout the year, suggests the following actions to maintain a solid self-care routine during allergy season:

•         Keep a pack of tissues on hand for days when allergies are at their worst.

•         Use eye drops to relieve itchy, watery eyes. 

•         Use an antihistamine to reduce nasal itching, sneezing and discharge.

•         Use a decongestant during winter to clear mucus.

As with any ailment or illness, prevention is better than cure. Consult your local pharmacist, nurse or health professional for the correct over-the-counter products to manage hay fever and other seasonal allergies and schedule an appointment with your doctor if symptoms persist.  

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