As we catch a glimpse of the warmer, more humid days of summer, for many of us it isn't simply a time to enjoy more of the outdoor activities that we've sacrificed over the winter, but it's a time of constant sneezing, itchy and watery eyes, sleepless nights and general misery. Now is the time for you to take action, in order to give yourself the best chance of escape from symptoms this year.
WHAT IS HAY FEVER?
Hay Fever, also known as 'Allergic Rhinitis', results when people with oversensitive nasal passages are exposed to an allergy-causing substance (allergen). When the body is exposed to an allergen, it responds by producing antibodies. Antibodies then cause the release of histamine from membranes in the body, which causes swelling and inflammation in the area and the familiar symptoms of itch, redness and stuffiness. In severe cases, bursts of histamine can cause bronchostriction and difficulty breathing. Children who are often exposed to passive smoking are more at risk of developing allergic reactions.
Hay Fever can be grouped into two categories: Perennial and Seasonal.
Seasonal Rhinitis is triggered by pollens breathed in from the air. These may come from trees, plants, flowers, grasses, mould, fungi or weeds. The incidence of Hay Fever can vary widely depending on the plants present in a particular geographical location. Symptoms disappear when the offending substance is not producing spores or pollen, usually the colder months of the year. The most frequent cause of Hay Fever is grass pollen. The grass pollen season lasts from May to July. The tree pollen season runs from February to April (and on to July for birch trees).
About 1 in 10 people in Ireland is affected, including between 60-80% of people who have asthma. If allergic rhinitis is treated effectively, it could reduce asthma symptoms and may even prevent the development of asthma. Hay Fever sufferers are also more vulnerable to sleeping difficulties that can lead to chronic fatigue (due to blocked nasal passages and snoring), especially if the condition is left untreated.
Symptoms of Hay Fever usually appear firstly in childhood and lessen by the age of 30 or 40. Hay Fever is not contagious, but it tends to run in families, occurring more often in patients with asthma, eczema, otitis media and nasal polyps. What we inherit in Hay Fever is the tendency to develop the condition rather than the condition itself. If we lived in a country without pollen we would not get Hay Fever.
Perennial Rhinitis occurs all year round. It results from exposure to an allergen encountered every day, such as animal dander, industrial fumes, cigarette smoke, cosmetic sprays, household cleaners and dust mite. The symptoms are similar to those of Hay Fever but nasal congestion is predominant while itchy eyes are less frequent.
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS
Symptoms begin immediately after exposure to the allergen and may include:
- itchy nose, throat, eyes and roof of mouth
- watery eyes
- clear, watery nasal discharge
- occasionally, frontal headaches and irritability
- coughing and asthmatic wheezing may occur with prolonged exposure
- loss of taste and smell
- blocked nose
- post-nasal drip
Talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you are suffering from any of the above symptoms, or if you are anticipating the symptoms based on your past history. Some treatments for Hay Fever are best started early, before the Hay Fever season begins.
The common cold can often be confused with Hay Fever because they cause some similar symptoms. A cold, however, usually only lasts about a week. It is possible to become allergic to pollen at any stage and not having suffered Hay Fever before does not rule it out as a possibility.
Corticosteroid nasal sprays reduce inflammation and swelling of the nasal mucosa, e.g. Beconase, Flixonase. It is best to start treatment before the season begins, under the instruction of your doctor. Nasal steroids have to be used regularly to be effective and with continued use they reduce a patient's sensitivity to an allergen. Steroids reduce the inflammatory response of the allergic reaction by blocking the release of all mediators of the allergic reaction.
Cromoglycate and Others:
Sodium cromoglycate eye drops should be initiated before the pollen season begins, e.g. Vividrin, Opticrom. They are effective in relieving mild to moderate symptoms, including some of the eye symptoms not always helped by antihistamines. They work by stabilising the cells responsible for histamine release so release is inhibited.
These are the most frequently used oral medicines for treatment of hay fever, e.g. Zirtek, Clarityn, Piriton. They lessen the allergic reaction by blocking the actions of histamine and are effective in relieving eye irritation, sneezing, an itchy throat and runny nose. Most people prefer oral formulations but topical preparations are also available, e.g. eye drops (Antistin) and nasal sprays. These work directly at the site of application and symptom relief is quickly obtained.
Oral and topical decongestants may be useful for periods of severe nasal congestion. These work by constricting blood vessels lining the nasal passages so the mucus drains away more easily and breathing is easier. Decongestant nasal sprays should not be used for longer than seven days due to the possibility of rebound congestion.