Hay fever is an allergic reaction which occurs in people who are particularly sensitive to pollen or spores released into the air by trees, grasses or moulds. Its medical name is seasonal allergic rhinitis and it is one of the most common allergies known. It is estimated that between 6 and 12 million people suffer – most between the ages of 10 and 40, with about one in six teenagers affected. It is also estimated that four million working days are lost during June and July alone through hay fever.
Hay fever strictly refers to an allergy to grass pollen, but the term is often used to cover allergy to pollen from plants, shrubs and trees. Pollens released in spring are usually from trees, whilst in the summer flower, grass or weed pollens are released. In the autumn the symptoms are usually caused by pollen from autumn-flowering plants and the spores of some fungi. The sufferer’s body reacts to pollen as though it were a dangerous threat like a germ, and does all it can to get rid of it by releasing a chemical called histamine. Histamine causes inflammation and irritation of the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose and ear passages. The eyes then water in an effort to wash away the pollen and the running nose and sneezing help eject pollen from the nose. Hay fever can also cause drowsiness.
Hay-fever sufferers are most at risk between May and September, when the ‘pollen count’ (the level of pollen in the air) is at its highest. So listen to the pollen count forecasts broadcast daily on television and local radio or check the weather reports in newspapers. A pollen count of 50 grains per cubic metre is enough to set most sufferers sneezing. The pollen count will be high on warm, dry and windy days because pollen released from grasses and trees is carried upwards by warm air. Also, warm, dry conditions are needed for pollen to be released in the first place.
Symptoms are often more severe in the morning, when pollen is released and carried upwards as the air tempera-ture rises. They then become worse again in the evening as the temperature drops and the pollen grains drift back down.
There is no cure for hay fever, although steroid nasal sprays, available on prescription, are very helpful. But over-the-counter antihistamine tablets are one of the most popular forms of treatment. Antihistamines such as brompheniramine block the effects of histamine to stop the allergic reaction occurring and newer ones such as terfena-dine produce little if any drowsiness. But care should be taken initially, as with all drugs taken for the first time, because there may be rare cases when the patient reacts badly.
For most relief, start taking antihistamines as soon as the first symptoms occur, although treatment can be started at any time. Nasal sprays containing decongestants which shrink swollen nasal tissues can provide relief from a blocked nose, but should only be used in the short term, since long-term use may actually aggravate the condition.
There are many self-help measures you can take to relieve the symptoms of hay fever. Wearing plain glasses or sunglasses can prevent much of the eye irritation, by stopping pollen grains entering the eyes. Avoid walking through grass or cutting it. Keep windows and doors closed, especially when lawns are being mowed. Stay away from pets if they have been outside. Try to plan your day to avoid being outdoors in the morning and evening when pollen counts are at their highest. Don’t go on country walks and avoid parks or gardens on warm and sunny days, or, if this is impossible, wash your hair afterwards. Keep car windows and air vents closed when you’re out driving. Don’t smoke, because this causes further irritation to those susceptible to allergies.
A final word of hope. Most hay-fever sufferers do grow out of it eventually!
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