Surviving hay fever: A guide for sufferers

Following a relatively mild winter and some more recent fine, warm weather we’ve had the perfect weather conditions for pollen production and release. If you’re one of the many millions of hay fever sufferers across the UK, the coming of spring can signal the unwelcome return of your symptoms.

To help you with the early onset of the pollen season, we’ve asked Perrigo, a leading provider of medicines and self-care products, to provide some information and advice on managing your symptoms 

What is hay fever?

Hay fever, also known as seasonal allergic rhinitis, is an allergic reaction to pollen. It can be triggered by allergens in the air around us, like grass, tree, plant pollen and mould. Between May and July, during the traditional growing season, trees and plants create more pollen, and this, together with warmer more humid temperatures and winds, can bring about a spike in our symptoms. 

To make matters worse, unseasonably mild winters, warm springs and dry summers in recent years have led to plants growing more vigorously and a longer, stronger growing season. So, hay fever sufferers can experience symptoms from early spring until late autumn. 

Who gets hay fever?

Hay fever affects almost 10 million people in England, of all ages. This equates to almost one in four adults and 1 in 10 children, and research shows that the number of sufferers is rising, year on year.

What are the most common symptoms?

From itchy eyes and a runny nose, to sneezing, swollen eyes and headaches, hay fever can really affect your quality of life. Over half of sufferers say that hay fever disrupts their sleep – leading to fatigue, a drop in productivity and absence at work. Teenagers with hay fever are also 40% more likely to drop grades at school due to their symptoms. The good news is many people find their symptoms improve as they get older. Around half of people report some improvement in symptoms after several years. What’s more, symptoms disappear completely in around 10-20% of people.

The four stages of hay fever.

When it comes to living with and managing hay fever symptoms on a day-to-day basis, it pays to understand a little more about how hay fever affects our bodies.

  1.      Exposure

Hay fever is typically triggered when an allergen (such as pollen) enters the nose, sensitising the mast cells that line the nasal passage. At this early stage, there may be no symptoms.  

  1.     Early-phase response

In response to the allergen, antibodies on the surface of the mast cells trigger an allergic response that releases compounds, such as histamines. When faced with an “invading” allergen, these compounds act on nerves and blood vessel and it is this self-defence mechanism that triggers the symptoms we often recognise as hay fever.

  1.     Inflammation

White blood cells flood into the affected area, causing the irritation and inflammation that lead to congestion.  

  1.     Late-phase response

Over the course of the next 6 – 12 hours, inflammation leads to release of more histamine, and worsening symptoms: itchy, runny nose, eye irritation, sneezing and congestion. 

What’s the best way to treat hay fever?

Left unchecked, hay fever can make the summer months miserable. So it’s important to plan ahead and take a few simple precautions on days when the pollen count is forecast to be particularly high. While there are many different kinds of over-the-counter and prescription hay fever treatments, they essentially fall into two main categories: defence and relief.

Stage 1: Defence. Preventative treatments are designed to work in the early stages of hay fever, and at the first sign of your symptoms. Antihistamines tablets are a common example. As the name suggests, these work by blocking the action of histamines – which can cause your hay fever symptoms to flare up. However, it’s worth remembering that some older antihistamines may cause drowsiness.  

 Unlike tablets which can take up to an hour to be effective, allergen barrier nasal sprays and nasal gels act directly in the nose and get to work within few minutes. These treatments help to prevent the allergens from entering the nasal passage, and effectively defend the main gateway to the body – the nose.

Stage 2: Relief. The longer the exposure to the allergen, the more severe the symptoms become. So in the later stages of hay fever, the key is often to manage and minimise the symptoms – enabling you to get back to normal life.

While antihistamines may be helpful in reducing a runny nose, or sneezing, they are less effective in combatting congestion.  However, corticosteroid nasal sprays can help to control a number of different symptoms - from inflammation of the nasal lining and itchy red eyes, to a runny nose, swollen sinuses and sneezing.

Many hay fever sufferers find it useful to choose a combination of treatments that cover different stages of their symptoms.

Are there any other ways to minimise symptoms?

While it’s almost impossible to avoid pollen during the summer months, there are a number of practical steps you can take to minimise your exposure.

  • remove outdoor clothing and shower or wash your hair following high pollen exposure
  • close windows at night
  • vacuum regularly, preferably with a high-efficiency particle arresting (HEPA) filter in place
  • avoid keeping flowers in the house.
  • avoid drying washing outdoors when the pollen count is high or when cutting the grass, as this can bring pollen into the house.
  • avoid walking in grassy, open spaces, particularly during the early morning and early evening
  • keep an eye on the weather forecast for information about pollen count levels and avoid going outdoors when the pollen count is Medium or High
  • install pollen filters in your car if they are not already fitted
  • drive with windows closed
  • consider wearing wrap-around sunglasses to stop pollen getting in your eyes when outdoors
  • For the latest pollen forecast, download the Met office weather app and turn on your pollen notification for daily updates.

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