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Summers day - Hayfever
25 Jul 2016

The STS Guide to Hayfever

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Quick Guide to Hay Fever – What to do

At this time of year in particular both adults and children can suffer with hay fever.

Here is a quick and easy guide on what you can do to alleviate the symptoms.

The facts

Hay fever is a common allergic condition that affects up to one in five people at some point in their life.

It’s estimated that there are more than 10 million people with hay fever in England.

Many people find their symptoms improve as they get older. Around half of people report some improvement in symptoms after several years. Symptoms disappear completely in around 10-20% of people.

 

Causes of hay fever

Hay fever is an allergic reaction to pollen. When these tiny particles come into contact with the cells that line your mouth, nose, eyes and throat, they irritate them and trigger an allergic reaction.

When you have an allergic reaction, your body overreacts to something it perceives as a threat. Your immune system (the body’s natural defence) responds as if it were being attacked by a virus.

Your immune system will release a number of chemicals designed to prevent the spread of what it wrongly perceives as an infection. These chemicals cause the symptoms of the allergic reaction, such as watering eyes and a runny nose.

 

Risk factors

It’s unclear what causes the immune system to react in this way, but there are several factors that can increase your risk of developing hay fever. They include:

Having asthma or another allergic condition, such as eczema.

Having a family history of hay fever.

Being exposed to tobacco smoke and diesel exhaust particles during early childhood.

Most people with hay fever are allergic to grass pollen, but it can also be caused by trees and weeds. Research suggests that pollution, such as cigarette smoke or car exhaust fumes, can make allergies worse.

 

Pollen

There are around 30 types of pollen that could cause your hay fever. The pollen that causes hay fever can come from a number of sources, including:

Grass – in the UK, about 9 out of 10 (90%) of people with hay fever are allergic to Timothy and Rye grass pollen

Trees – about 1 in 4 (25%) of people with hay fever in the UK are allergic to pollen from trees, including oak, ash, cedar and birch (people with an allergy to birch often also experience an allergic reaction to apples, peaches, plums and cherries because these types of fruit contain a similar protein to birch pollen)

Weeds – such as dock, mugwort and nettles; being allergic to weeds is less common and tends to occur during the autumn

It’s possible to be allergic to more than one type of pollen.

 

When is there most pollen?

Different trees and plants produce their pollen at different times of the year. Depending on which type of pollen you’re allergic to, you may experience hay fever symptoms at different times.

In the UK, the pollen count season is usually separated into three periods:

Tree pollen – late March to mid-May

Grass pollen – mid-May to July

Weed pollen – end of June to September

However, the pollen count season can sometimes begin as early as January or end in November. For example, depending on the weather conditions, sometimes there can be an “early spring” or a “long summer”.

The Met Office provides a Pollen Forecast. If the pollen count is high, you can take preventative measures. If you do suffer it is a good idea to keep a close eye on this.

 

Who’s affected

You can get hay fever at any age, although it usually begins in childhood or during the teenage years. It’s more common in boys than girls. In adults, men and women are equally affected.You’re more likely to develop hay fever if you have a family history of allergies, particularly asthma or eczema.

Even though hay fever doesn’t pose a serious threat to health, it can have a negative impact on a person’s quality of life. People with very severe hay fever often find that it can disrupt their productivity at school or work.

 

 

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Symptoms of hay fever include:

Sneezing

A runny or blocked nose

Itchy, red or watery eyes

An itchy throat, mouth, nose and ears

Cough, caused by postnasal drip (mucus dripping down the throat from the back of the nose)

 

Less commonly, you may also experience:

The loss of your sense of smell (anosmia)

Facial pain (caused by blocked sinuses)

Headaches

Earache

Tiredness and fatigue

 

Hay fever and asthma

If you have asthma, your asthma symptoms may get worse when you have hay fever. Sometimes, the symptoms of asthma only occur when you have hay fever.

 

These symptoms include:

Tight chest

Shortness of breath

Coughing

Wheezing

 

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Treatment options for hay fever

There’s currently no cure for hay fever, but most people are able to relieve symptoms with treatment, at least to a certain extent.

The most effective way to control hay fever would be to avoid exposure to pollen. However, it’s very difficult to avoid pollen, particularly during the summer months when you want to spend more time outdoors.

Antihistamines, which can help to prevent an allergic reaction from occurring and corticosteroids (steroids), which help to reduce inflammation and swelling.

Hay fever can often be controlled using over-the-counter medication from your pharmacist. However, if your symptoms are more troublesome it’s worth speaking to your GP, as you may require prescription medication.

For severe and persistent hay fever, there’s also a type of treatment called immunotherapy. It involves being exposed to small amounts of pollen over time, to build resistance to its allergic effects. However, this can take many months or even years to work.

 

TreatmentProsCons
Pollen avoidance
Taking steps to minimise your exposure to pollen, such as closing windows, wearing wraparound sunglasses and avoiding grassy areas
  • Can often relieve symptoms without the need for medication
  • Not always possible to do this successfully
Antihistamines
Tablets and nasal sprays that block the effects of a chemical called histamine, which is responsible for many of the symptoms of hay fever
  • Often effective in relieving symptoms such as itching, sneezing and watery eyes
  • Available over the counter from your local pharmacist without a prescription
  • May not be effective in treating a blocked-up nose
  • Can cause drowsiness in some people
Steroid drops and sprays
Steroid drops and sprays can help reduce inflammation around the eyes and inside the nasal passages
  • Can be an effective treatment for a blocked nose and watery eyes when antihistamines don’t work
  • Side effects can include nasal irritation and dryness,nosebleeds, an unpleasant taste in the mouth and itchy skin around the nose
Steroid tablets
More powerful form of steroid medication
  • An effective treatment if short-term relief of severe symptoms is needed, such as before an exam or driving test
  • Taking steroid tablets for more than 10 days can increase the risk of side effects, such as weight gain, mood changes and acne
Nasal decongestants
A nasal spray that reduces the swelling in blood vessels, making breathing easier
  • Effective for treating a blocked nose
  • Can’t be used for more than seven days because it can make your symptoms worse
Eye drops
Eye drops containing antihistamines
  • Effective for treating watery, itchy and red eyes
  • Side effects include some mild stinging and burning of the eyes
Immunotherapy
Regular exposure to small amounts of the substance you’re allergic to, allowing your immune system to get used to it
  • Can be effective in treating persistent symptoms that don’t respond to conventional treatment
  • Only available at specialist allergy clinics
  • Can take months or, in some cases, years to work

 

When to seek medical advice

You usually only need to see your GP if:

You can’t control your symptoms with over-the-counter medications, or you have troublesome side effects caused by the medication

You’re experiencing persistent complications of hay fever, such as worsening of asthma or repeated episodes of sinusitis

The pattern of your symptoms is unusual, such as occurring during the winter or only at your workplace (it’s likely that another substance other than pollen is responsible, and further testing will be needed to confirm this)

 

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Self-help tips

It’s sometimes possible to prevent the symptoms of hay fever by taking some basic precautions, such as:

Wearing wraparound sunglasses to stop pollen getting in your eyes when you’re outdoors.

Taking a shower and changing your clothes after being outdoors to remove the pollen on your body.

Staying indoors when the pollen count is high (over 50 grains per cubic metre of air)

Applying a small amount of Vaseline (petroleum gel) to the nasal openings to trap pollen grains.