Hay fever – also known as seasonal allergic rhinitis - is an allergy to pollen, usually from grass or trees that can cause symptoms in either your eyes, nose or throat. In some sufferers it can cause a whole body response with a combination of symptoms, leaving you feeling pretty fed up and reluctant to embrace the great outdoors. It can also end up interfering with your work, study and sleep.
Pollen is a dust-like particle, carried on the wind and by insects such as bees to pollinate more plants. Proteins in pollen can trigger an inflammatory response where an immune-fighting substance called histamine is released from mast cells in the body. This is helpful in protecting you from certain irritants, but hay fever and other allergic reactions occur because your histamine release mechanism goes into overdrive. Hay fever is very common, affecting around 1 in every 5 people in the UK, and it often starts as a child or teenager. It can run in families and you are more likely to have hay fever if you also suffer from asthma or eczema.
If you have hay fever, when you come into contact with pollen or the spores of moulds or fungi that you’re allergic to, your body produces an antibody called immunoglobulin E (IgE). Antibodies are usually only released to fight infection, but in this instance, your body believes the substance you’re allergic to is harmful.
When there’s a lot of the substance you’re allergic to in the air, the IgE antibodies will trigger the release of chemicals from certain cells in your nose, throat and eyes. One of these chemicals is histamine, and as a result of histamine in your system, you’ll experience the symptoms of hay fever.
Pollen is seasonal. You may be allergic to just one type of pollen, which means you are only susceptible to symptoms at certain times of the year, and therefore treatment can be limited to this time.
Treatment can be targeted at relieving each symptom or with the aim of dampening down inflammation throughout the body. With lots of hay fever products on the market, it can be tricky to know which is right for you, so let’s talk you through the options.
Eyes can feel itchy, gritty and sensitive to light. You may get excessive streaming, making it difficult to see. You might get puffy eyelids, dark circles under the eyes and redness on the whites of the eyes and the inner pockets, the conjunctivae.
Constant sneezing is a classic hay fever symptom, and the nasal passages can swell, making them feel blocked and congested. This can give your voice an odd tone and cause you to mouth-breathe. Hay fever is medically termed allergic rhinitis, which specifically refers to nose allergies, but may be caused by allergens other than pollen, like house dust mite and pet dander.
Your throat can feel itchy and tingly. You may feel it constantly needs clearing, which may be in response to nasal congestion and the post-nasal drip, where secretions leak down from the back of the nose to the throat and irritate.
The post-nasal drip can also cause an irritating tickly cough. You might get a dry cough if histamine release directly affects the lungs, and it can trigger asthma if you are susceptible.
Skin can become itchy and blotchy, possibly with a rash. It can trigger eczema in those with this tendency.
Without treatment, nasal congestion can lead to sinusitis, where deep nasal passages are inflamed, causing discomfort and pain. Those who suffer from hay fever also tend to get asthma and eczema, and untreated hay fever can cause a flare-up of either of these conditions.
If your child suffers from hay fever over a long period, they may develop a phenomenon called the allergic salute. This is where they get a runny or itchy nose and use their palm to repeatedly swipe upwards, causing a little horizontal crease on the bridge of their nose and swelling at the base. This will go with time, once their symptoms are controlled.
Impact for those who are highly sensitised can be immediate, but for others, it can be more subtle. Symptoms can gather pace and get worse if you don’t recognise them early and start treatment.
The hay fever season is typically from the end of March to July but varies depending on where you are in the country and whether your allergy is to grass pollen or tree pollen. According to Allergy UK, tree pollen tends to be active in the spring. Some start as early as mid-February (alder, hazel and yew), most tree pollen is active in March or April (elm, willow, poplar, birch and ash), and some trees shed in May (plane, oak, pine and lime).
Grass pollen is most active for two months from the end of May, with yellow fields of oil seed rape pollen peaking in May and June, and others (nettle, dock and mugwort) from June to August.
It's worthwhile keeping a diary of your symptoms and the time of year you get them – you may notice a pattern that can indicate which pollen you are allergic to, and start treatment a couple of weeks before this. You could also go for allergy testing, where skin prick testing is the most appropriate for pollen.
The first thing you can do is to keep an eye on the pollen count – the UK government’s met office pollen forecast is a reliable source of information.
Other ways to help include avoiding cigarette smoke, cleaning your house regularly to keep dust and mould counts low – wear a mask, dust with a clean, damp cloth and vacuum instead of sweeping - removing items that easily trap dust, such as stuffed animals, dried flowers and curtains, and considering using low-allergy bedding products
You may prefer to try drug-free options first, and these are a good choice for those who are pregnant or have suffered side effects from medicated hay fever products.
For nose symptoms, nasal lavage like Sterimar Allergy Relief or saline nasal sprays like Becodefence Nasal Spray flush away allergens in the nose, preventing them building up and provoking an immune response.
Topical nasal barriers aim to trap pollen before it enters the nasal passage and causes a reaction. Haymax Hay Fever Balm is one option, as is applying Vaseline inside the nostrils.
Desensitisation is a technique designed to reduce the histamine over-reaction that causes hay fever symptoms. One type is allergy immunotherapy, where a series of injections aims to gently introduce your body to the allergen – pollen – before the hay fever season starts, so that you do not get the surge of histamine release. It’s available in private clinics and some specialist NHS allergy centres.
Some people swear by eating honey produced in the area where they live, as bees collect nectar which has captured local pollen. While this may work for some as a solution, and makes sense from the desensitisation theory, again the evidence is deemed too weak to say if it definitely works for the majority of sufferers.
People suffering from hay fever and allergies may suffer from the full spectrum of symptoms, or with just one. A stepwise approach is usually the best course.
Oral antihistamines in tablet or liquid form, will often be enough to bring down most of the symptoms such as sneezing, a runny nose, and watery eyes, and they are particularly useful if you suffer a combination of symptoms. They are available in tablet or liquid form, they can get to work fast, and can be used throughout the hay fever season. If you know your pollen season, it’s a good idea to start antihistamines a couple of weeks beforehand, to reduce or avoid symptoms when the pollen starts shedding.
Some antihistamines are classed as non-drowsy, such as cetirizine or loratadine, and some of the older ones can cause drowsiness, like chlorphenamine. This may be an advantage if symptoms keep you awake, and some people find one works better for them than another.
Fexofenadine is a much stronger antihistamine that you can try if others have failed, but this may require a prescription in some circumstances.
You should change the class of antihistamine if using one continuously for more than 3 months, as you can build up a tolerance to its effects and it may have stopped working as well.
Add-on treatments can help resolve any remaining symptoms such as sinus congestion or red itchy eyes, or they can be used alone if symptoms are mild or you wish to avoid antihistamine tablets.
Eye medications: Products containing 2% sodium cromoglicate, such as Opticrom Eye Drops are available over-the-counter for those aged 6 and above.
Sodium cromoglicate is a mast cell stabiliser, meaning it reduces the hypersensitivity of mast cells in those with hay fever. This prevents the inflammatory response becoming active and releasing lots of histamine, thereby stopping allergic symptoms in the eyes. It works in a different way to antihistamines, and can be a helpful addition alongside oral antihistamines when necessary.
Nose medications: A steroid nasal spray dampens down inflammation in the nose, suppressing histamine release and reducing the sensitivity to pollen or allergens. It's a good long-term option to help relieve congestion, sneezing, itching, and a runny nose, and you can start it a few weeks before you expect your hay fever to start. Allow five to seven days of daily application for it to get to work, and continue throughout the allergy season.
Nasal decongestants provide short-term relief from a blocked nose, but they shouldn’t be used in the long term, as they don’t reduce the immune overdrive and can cause side effects.
A saline nasal spray or nasal lavage are good drug-free options.
Throat or cough medications such as a steroid nasal spray or drug-free nasal spray, may be best to respond to coughs and throat symptoms. If you suspect pollen has caused a flare of your asthma symptoms, it’s worth addressing this directly with inhalers and advice from your doctor.
For some people, there may be a few restrictions over the counter on what can be used such as those who might be pregnant or who wear contact lenses. If you’re pregnant, try the drug-free options first, such as sea salt-based nasal sprays, and avoid taking any medication without speaking to a doctor or midwife first.
Not all eye drops are suitable for those wearing contact lenses, so it’s worth checking the product information carefully when deciding what to use.
Drug-free options are safe and effective – this may be enough, but they are also useful to use alongside medicated products, if needed. Preventative measures like balms to trap pollen in the nostrils, such as Haymax Balm, or nasal barrier sprays to prevent pollen travelling higher up the nose, like Becodefence Nasal Spray.
Saline washes are also a safe option to flush out pollen from the nose, such as Sterimar Baby Nasal Spray (suitable from 3 months old). For the eyes, Opticrom Eye Drops can feel soothing, and it’s good practice keep eyes clear of pollen with regular washing and some handy eye wipes, like Kleenex Water Fresh Wipes Allergy Comfort.
This may not be enough, and as hay fever can have an impact on your child’s sleep and concentration at school, you may wish to progress to something medicated. Certain antihistamine formulations are known to be safe for children and babies, such as Piriteze Allergy Syrup, containing active ingredient cetirizine and suitable for children aged 6 years and over, or Piriton Syrup, containing chlorphenamine, which is suitable for children 1 year and over. Some oral solutions contain loratadine, a non-sedating antihistamine like cetirizine, as a safe alternative for children aged 1 and over.
You should consult your doctor if you have used pharmacy medications for 2 weeks with no relief or worsening symptoms, or if symptoms are having a significant impact. It’s also worth a trip if you’ve been reliant on antihistamines for 3 months or more without your doctor's input.
The doctor will ask you about your medical history and current symptoms. They may examine and listen to your chest or look in your throat, depending on your symptoms.
The doctor can prescribe different medications not available in the pharmacy, and in certain cases, they may refer you to an allergy clinic. The clinic may decide to do skin prick testing to find out specific allergies. Skin prick testing, a type of allergy testing, is also available from private clinics.
If you think your hay fever is making asthma or eczema symptoms worse, this is worth discussing with your doctor.
If over-the-counter remedies aren't really helping your child or you're not sure of their diagnosis, do book an appointment with their doctor.
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