If you’re one of the 20 percent of Irish people who suffer from some form of allergic rhinitis - the medical name for hay fever - there are things you can do to alleviate the symptoms and enjoy the last of the summer’s precious days in the sun.
Although hay fever peaks in June and July, the season runs from April to September. As the name ‘allergic rhinitis’ suggests, this condition is an allergic reaction that causes inflammation in the nose, eyes and upper airway. This allergy is triggered when you are exposed to particles in the air such as dust, tree pollen, or, in the case of hay fever, grass pollen. As well as sneezing, itching and congestion, the condition can cause swelling around the eyes, a constantly runny nose, and reddened skin.
The first step towards beating hay fever is recognising that you have it. According to Dr Aaron Brennan of Briarhill Family Practice, many Irish people explain their symptoms away as simple colds without considering that allergies may be the cause. At the same time, many others believe they have hay fever when in fact an allergy to tree pollen or dust is behind their symptoms.
“It all depends on when you get it,” Dr. Brennan explains. “With tree pollen allergies, the sneezing and congestion will start as early as March; with dust pollen allergies, the symptoms often persist year-round. Grass pollen allergy, or hay fever as it’s known, appears a little later in the year. The typical complaint of someone with hay fever is that their symptoms start to show up as soon as they hear the first lawnmower of the summer. That’s when the grass pollen levels in the air really start to rise.”
If this sounds like you, here’s some advice for how to fight back against the debilitating effects of hay fever.
1. Take an antihistamine
The chemicals that cause the symptoms of hay fever are called histamines. These chemicals are not found in the air, but are in fact produced by your own body in response to particles that could be harmful. When you have hay fever, these histamines are overreacting to harmless particles such as pollen, and launching an unnecessary defensive reaction against them.
How can you tell your immune system to calm down and enjoy the sunshine? One way to do it is to think about taking an antihistamine to reduce or block the effects of histamines in your body. Antihistamines can be bought over the counter at most pharmacies and can provide short-term relief from the symptoms of hay fever. However, while antihistamines do provide relief from the symptoms, they do nothing to stop the swelling which is taking place inside the nose. If over the counter treatments have not helped, there are prescription decongestant sprays and steroid sprays that a GP can prescribe.
2. Know when pollen levels are highest
The most common trigger for hay fever in Ireland is the pollen that comes from grass. When the weather is hot and dry, grass opens its pollen sacs and the pollen levels in the air rise. If there is a light breeze, this can make the situation worse, as the wind spreads the pollen far and wide. Peak pollen hours are in the late morning and afternoon, so you might want to avoid grassy areas until later on in the day.
3. Use an app to keep track of pollen levels and your symptoms
A Dublin GP and allergy specialist, Dr Paul Carson, has developed a free app which allows you to receive pollen updates for your location. The app also offers personalised treatment plans depending on your symptoms. It’s called “Hay Fever Relief” and you can find it in the iPhone App Store or, for Android phones, on Google Play. Another option is to consult the pollen forecasts provided by Met Éireann.
4. Reduce your contact with pollen
Naturally, the less pollen you inhale, the less severe your reaction to it will be. You might want to avoid grassy areas, and especially activities such as cutting the grass. Close your windows when you drive so that pollen doesn’t enter the car. When you return home after being outdoors, it can help to wash your hands and face and even to change your clothes. If your symptoms are severe, consider looking into an intranasal corticosteroid spray. These sprays contain a steroid that reduces inflammation of the nose and keep your nostrils clear. Some corticosteroid sprays, such as Prevalin, are available over the counter; other, stronger ones will require a prescription from your GP. In a pinch, you can put some Vaseline or petroleum jelly around your nostrils. This will trap pollen before it can enter your nose and cause irritation.
5. Take a probiotic
The bacteria in your gut plays a large role in keeping your immune system working the way it does. Some early studies have shown that certain kinds of healthy bacteria, such as Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria, could help to alleviate the symptoms of hay fever. So considering a probiotic might be a useful move if you’re looking to fend off the condition.
Although the summer is winding down and for most sufferers hay fever will no longer be an issue until next summer rolls around, it pays to have a plan in place. Revisit these tips next Spring and talk to your doctor about how you can manage the risk of hay fever returning next year. For those who who are specifically grass pollen sensitive, it might be worth considering a referral for desensitisation (taking a low dose of grass pollen every day for up to three years has been shown to markedly improve hayfever control). This intervention needs to be started at least four months before the grass pollen season starts.
With a little forward planning, you can look forward to enjoying sunny days, without the debilitating effects of hay fever spoiling your next summer.