Hay fever facts to know

If affects one in five of us, it can make summer a misery and it causes as much sneezing as the average cold virus. It is, of course, hay fever - technically an allergy to grass pollen. But grass grows all year round, so why don't you get hay fever in winter?

The medical term for hay fever is 'allergic rhinitis'. The allergic bit is obvious. Rhinitis is the medical term for inflammation of the nose, although of course hay fever can affect much more than your nose.

Common causes of hay fever

The most common cause of hay fever is an allergy to grass pollen, which affects the sensitive parts of your body it comes into contact with. These include your eyes (itching, redness, soreness), your nose (itchy blocked or runny nose and sneezing) your throat (scratchy irritation) and sometimes your sinuses (pain and blockage). When the pollen comes into direct contact with the lining of your nose, eyes or throat, your body releases a chemical called histamine. Sneezing often starts as soon as you come into contact with pollen, with runny nose within a few minutes and blocked nose a few hours later.

Histamine is involved in other allergic reactions, and a tendency to allergy often runs in families. If other members of your family have hay fever, asthma or eczema, you're more prone to get one or more of them. For some reason, first born children are also at increased risk. In severe cases hay fever can bring on or worsen asthma symptoms.

Who is affected by hay fever?

Hay fever often starts when you're a teenager and comes back at the same time every year. The time depends on what you're allergic to. Grass pollen is the most common cause, and grass pollen levels are highest from May-July. But some people are allergic to tree pollen, which abounds in spring (March-May), others to nettle or dock leaf pollen and others still to mould spores, which multiply in the autumn.

Some people suffer from all-year round nasal irritation, known as perennial rhinitis. This is most often down to an allergy to house-dust mites, which live in all our homes. Medical treatments are the same as for hay fever, but scrupulous cleaning, washing bedlinen regularly and wooden floors/blinds rather than carpets and curtains can help keep mite numbers down too.

How to control your symptoms

The first key to controlling hay fever symptoms is to keep a log of when you start getting symptoms each year. Next, keep an eye on weather station reports, which usually include a regular update on pollen levels.

Once you've pinpointed the culprit or time of year, start using regular treatment from a week or two before your symptoms would usually start. Antihistamine tablets do work within hours, but they're more effective if taken regularly. Nose sprays and eye drops need to be used regularly for best effect.

Lots of lifestyle changes can cut the impact of pollen on your life. For instance:

  • Wear wrap-around sunglasses to keep pollen out of your eyes (so much more than just a fashion accessory, darling!)
  • Shower and wash your hair when you come in from outside, to get rid of pollen
  • Don't dry your washing outside
  • Try a nasal barrier - common or garden Vaseline will do - under your nose to catch pollen
  • Keep car windows closed in summer and avoid open grassy areas.

Treatment depends on which bit of you is most affected. Antihistamine tablets reduce itching in nose, eyes and mouth, and may cut sneezing. However, they won't sort out your blocked nose. Regular eye drops containing a medicine called sodium cromoglicate stop the 'mast cells' of your immune system releasing histamine. You can also get antihistamine eye drops. Steroid nose sprays reduce inflammation and tackle a blocked nose as well as itching, sneezing and a runny nose. Decongestant nose sprays can also help but shouldn't be used for more than a few days. Otherwise they can cause a 'rebound' when you stop, bringing worse symptoms than ever. A combination of two or more may work if one alone isn't enough.

If you have asthma, keep your reliever inhaler handy at all times during hay fever season and watch out for worsening wheeze. Consider investing in a pollen filter for your car, to avoid pollen being brought in through the air vents.

With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.