We're getting to that time of year when many of us will struggle with blocked and runny noses, itchy eyes and a never-ending sneezing pattern. Springtime brings with it the start of the hay fever season, a condition which may affect as many as one in five of us in the UK over our lifetime.1 It's fair to say that severe cases of hay fever can leave people feeling pretty miserable.
What is hay fever?
Hay fever is an allergic reaction to pollen, which is produced naturally within the life cycle of plants. Pollen comes in different forms, which are prevalent at different times of the year. These include tree pollen, which starts in the spring, grass pollen, which we'll experience at the end of spring and the beginning of summer and weed pollen, which can be around from spring to autumn.
If this pollen gets into the sinuses, nose, eyes or throat, it can cause an inflammatory response leading to a runny or blocked nose, sore and itchy eyes, an itchy throat, mouth, ears and nose, and can also lead to a cough. Blocked sinuses can also lead to headaches, earache, fatigue and a sore face.
Hay fever, asthma and the pollen count
People with asthma may experience a worsening of their symptoms if they also suffer with hay fever. Some people with asthma will need to have their inhaler doses increased, or be moved on to a steroid inhaler by their doctors to try to prevent an attack. Doctors may also provide people who don't have asthma with an inhaler if they think they are experiencing certain breathing symptoms such as shortness of breath, a tight chest, wheezing and regular coughing.
While nobody can avoid pollen completely, hay fever symptoms are worse on days when the pollen count is high. The pollen count is measured by testing the number of grains of pollen in one cubic metre of air, and is considered high if that number is 50 or more. During hay fever season, the pollen count is often given out on TV and the radio, and certain areas of the country can be worse than others at any one time.
Treating hay fever
There is no known cure for hay fever, although it can disappear as you get older - equally, people who have never had hay fever before can also develop it later in life. There are several over-the-counter treatments available to help relieve the symptoms. These include antihistamine tablets, nasal sprays and eye drops. If your symptoms are particularly severe, doctors may recommend you take a short dose of steroid tablets.
When to see the doctor
Normally it should be possible to control your symptoms without help from the doctor, especially if you seek advice from a pharmacist. However, there may be a time when you need to see your GP too. If your symptoms are getting worse despite using regular medication, you experience worsening asthma or sinusitis, or you experience side effects from the hay fever medication, you should seek medical advice.
It is impossible to avoid pollen altogether, but these tips may help you reduce your exposure to it. When the pollen count is high:
- Stay inside wherever possible, with windows and doors shut
- Avoid mowing your lawn when the pollen count is high, stay away from camping trips or places with lots of grass
- Shower more often, including washing your hair when you have been outside
- Wear sunglasses whenever you can. Wrap-around sunglasses are particularly effective
- Keep car windows shut and use the air conditioning instead, while you could also invest in a pollen filter for the air conditioner
- Rub some Vaseline® around the inside of your nostrils to capture the pollen.