While many people look forward to spring and the start of the warmer weather, millions of people in the UK are less welcoming as it also marks the start of the pollen season and, with it, hay fever.
Hay fever is believed to affect over 10 million people in the UK and can be an annual visitor or afflict people for a shorter time. It is an allergy caused by pollen or dust which inflames the mucous membranes of the eyes and nose, causing a runny nose and watery eyes.
In the UK, the pollen count season typically starts in March and ends in August, like the British weather this varies from year to year so for more accurate information, over a five day period, sufferers should keep an eye on the Met Office.
Different people are affected by different pollens, so some people can have hay fever continuously throughout the pollen count season, while others may have an allergy to, for example, tree pollen and so only be affected in the spring.
There are three common types of pollen: tree pollen which is prevalent in early spring; grass pollen is around in late spring and early summer; and, finally, weeds release their pollen in late autumn. For those suffering an allergy to all three, the warmer seasons can be very unpleasant.
For town and city dwellers, the misery is exacerbated by traffic pollution, making hay fever twice as common in towns and cities as in the countryside.
Pollen is released by plants as part of their reproductive cycle and is released in fine grains, like a dust. It often isn’t visible, although many Londoners may dispute this when the plane trees release their pollen in clouds on breezy spring days.
Pollen count is the measurement of the number of grains of pollen in a cubic metre of air. High numbers mean that people will have a greater reaction - worse hay fever - on those days and a lower number results in a lesser reaction or none at all. Many UK weather reports include whether or not the pollen count is low, moderate, high or very high on a given day, as this can have a great impact on sufferers’ lives. In short, the higher the pollen count, the worse the hay fever symptoms on that day or over that period.
Pollen count is measured by taking samples of the air by catching it in traps at a height of two or three storeys. These are taken regularly throughout the day and averaged out to give the pollen count.
Hay fever brings on a range of symptoms, including sneezing; a runny or blocked nose; itchy eyes, throat, mouth, nose and ears; and a cough. Eyes can become very watery, making it difficult to see and sometimes the eyes will almost close, in the severest cases or on the worst days.
Some hay fever sufferers lose their smell; have facial pain due to blocked sinuses; and suffer headaches, earache and fatigue. It can be very unpleasant, especially for younger people during exam periods, which regularly fall in the peak grass pollen hay fever season of late spring and early summer.
Anyone can have hay fever, it often starts in childhood and boys are more susceptible than girls. In adulthood, it is found equally in men and women and many people grow out of it with age. Those with eczema and asthma are more likely to suffer with hay fever.
Different people react to different types of pollen, with some having allergies to tree, grass and weed pollen and others only reacting to one type. Either way, it does mean that a huge number of people suffer from hay fever at some point in their lives, to a greater or lesser extent.
Asthma sufferers are particularly prone to hay fever and in the pollen count season, asthma may become worse; in some cases, asthma symptoms may only be experienced when the addition of hay fever brings it on.
Asthma is relatively common and on the increase in the UK, suspected reasons include air pollution and ‘tighter’ homes. Energy efficiency has become more important and homes are therefore sealed more tightly, with double glazing, insulation and so on; this means that there is less circulation of fresh air. Dust mites, mould, second-hand cigarette smoke and pet fur can all exacerbate asthma and concentrations of these are more likely in tighter homes.
Asthma is caused by the inflammation of the small tubes - bronchi - which carry air to and from the lungs. It causes breathlessness, coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. People can suffer from severe asthma and have asthma attacks, which can be serious and involve hospitalisation - this
Compare the symptoms of asthma with hay fever and it’s easy to see how hay fever can be a friend to asthma, though not to the sufferer.
Another condition which affects respiration is allergic rhinitis. This can be seasonal and mainly triggered by tree, grass and weed pollens; or it can be perennial - year round - related to mould, dust mites and pets.
Like hay fever, allergic rhinitis symptoms include sneezing and an itchy and runny nose. It can also affect the eyes, making them red and watery and can result in a blocked nose and sinuses, occasionally inducing headaches.
The causes of allergic rhinitis are down to the body creating allergic antibodies to substances such as pollen, house mites and pets. This results in the release of chemicals in the nasal passages, eyes and airways which irritate the eyes, nose and throat.
People who have one of, or a combination of, asthma, allergic rhinitis and hay fever will suffer during the pollen count season and will likely seek ways to alleviate the symptoms and the impact on their day to day lives.
There are no cures for any of these three complaints, although there are ways to decrease the impact and treatments to alleviate symptoms.
The NHS has a range of tips to prevent hay fever, some of which are not easily achievable for many people, such as staying indoors if the pollen count is high. Other suggestions include vacuuming regularly and keeping pets and fresh flowers out of the house. When outside, keeping car windows closed and wearing wraparound sunglasses are recommended to reduce the amount of pollen coming into contact with areas like the eyes and nose.
For sufferers of all three conditions, keeping the house as free of dust mites, pollens, pet fur, mould and other irritants as possible will really improve the quality of life for the individual. Home ventilation systems provide fresh filtered air, reduce humidity and get rid of condensation and mould, all of which should help to reduce the number of allergens in the home which aggravate the symptoms.
Hay fever can, in the main, be treated by products which you can buy over-the-counter in a pharmacy. They include antihistamines, which stop the symptoms of the allergic reaction. These are effective at treating the itchiness, sneezing and watery eyes but may not unblock the nose.
Rhinitis can also be treated by antihistamines, although the problem is usually better diagnosed by a doctor.
If you suspect you or your child has asthma then you should seek medical advice. Asthma is relatively easily managed with inhalers and, in most cases, sufferers can lead a full and normal life.
Rhinitis is the lesser known of the three ailments and you may think you have asthma or hay fever but be confused by its persistence in the winter months. A doctor’s diagnosis may be necessary so that you know how to treat or prevent it.
In the cases of rhinitis and hay fever, there are over the counter antihistamines; however, if these don’t alleviate the symptoms then you may need to seek medical advice. A doctor can prescribe steroid treatments, such as nasal sprays. Corticosteroid nasal sprays help with the inflammation, blocked nose and watery eyes. There are also corticosteroid tablets, which may be prescribed as a short-term, rapid-acting solution - these can have side effects.
Other hay fever treatments include nasal decongestants, eye drops and immunotherapy - this introduces your particular allergen to the body in a controlled environment, in case of a reaction, and builds up your resistance to the substance.
In all cases, these conditions can be relieved with various treatments but the symptoms can be prevented or decreased in severity by avoiding the substances which bring on the allergy as much as possible. The environment over which you have most control is the home and by reducing the various triggers as much as possible, you can lessen the symptoms significantly.
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