As Spring approaches, there’s plenty to get excited about - longer days and evening walks, fresh and colourful produce at the farmers’ market, and the beautiful sunshine you’ve been longing for throughout winter. However, there can also be a downside to Spring.
With it comes rising pollen counts which can cause sneezing, itchy eyes, a runny nose and headaches, and for some it can wreak havoc with sleep and concentration. Any sufferer of hay fever will tell you that these symptoms can be testing! But what do you know about hay fever, and what can you do to stop it?
What causes hay fever?
Hay fever is an allergic reaction, also known as allergic rhinitis. The tiny hairs and mucus that line the nasal passages trap dust, pollens, animal hair, moulds and other microscopic particles. A person with hay fever is allergic to some of the particles trapped in the nose - in particular, pollen. The immune system treats this substance as if it’s dangerous and launches an ‘attack’. The nasal passages become inflamed, more mucus is produced, and the body’s IgE (Immunoglobulin E) antibodies will trigger the release of histamine. Histamine causes your blood vessels to swell so that your white blood cells can quickly find and attack the infection or problem. This histamine influx can leave you feeling flushed, itchy and miserable.
Hay fever affects around one in five Australians. Interestingly, approximately 80% of asthma sufferers also suffer from hay fever. In fact, emerging evidence shows that untreated hay fever can increase the risk of developing asthma.
Although symptoms are often quite mild and manageable, when severe rhinitis is left untreated, it can cause complications such as:
- Sleep disturbance and fatigue;
- Recurrent ear infections;
- Recurrent sinus infections;
- Skin problems and hives.
If you are concerned you are suffering from severe hay fever and it is affecting your day-to-day function, discuss treatment options with your doctor.
Diagnosing hay fever
Your GP will usually be able to confirm whether or not you have hay fever by asking about your symptoms and when you get them. They may offer a skin prick allergy test to help determine if you are allergic to a specific substance. This involves putting certain allergens under the skin of the forearm, such as pollen, pet hair and dust. Once the skin has been scratched or pricked, signs of swelling or redness will identify the allergens you are most allergic too. You can then set about trying to avoid these to reduce your symptoms.
Treating hay fever with medicine
Hay fever medicines come in a variety of forms. Some are over-the-counter and others may require a prescription from your GP. If you are choosing an over-the-counter option, be sure to talk to your pharmacist. Describe your specific symptoms, and mention any other medications you might be taking. Some treatments might not be suitable for pregnant or breastfeeding mothers, so speak to your pharmacist if either of these apply to you.
People respond differently to different drugs, so if you’ve tried one type and found it didn’t help, don’t give up. Speak to your pharmacist and try another.
Always consult your doctor before giving any medication to a child under 12.
Types of remedies
Antihistamines work by stopping histamine from affecting your body’s cells. They can quickly reduce symptoms of sneezing, itching and a runny nose, and are available in tablet, syrup, nasal spray and drops form. Some antihistamines can cause drowsiness, so check with your pharmacist if you are planning on driving or heading off to work for the day.
Corticosteroid nasal sprays
A steroid nasal spray can be helpful in reducing inflammation of the nose, but is not particularly helpful once symptoms have taken hold. To be effective, steroid nasal sprays should be used on a daily basis throughout hay fever season.
Eye drops that contain antihistamines or sodium cromoglycate can help reduce symptoms of itchy, sore or puffy eyes. For best results, use it in conjunction with a steroid nasal spray daily during hay fever season.
Decongestant nasal sprays
A decongestant nasal spray works fast to offer temporary relief of a blocked nose, but should not be used for more than five consecutive days. Too much use will result in “rebound congestion”, and can actually cause a blocked nose instead of relieve it.
In cases of severe hay fever, your doctor may recommend immunotherapy, which means taking regular small doses of the allergens that affect you to build up your immunity against them. The doses are usually given by injection, although it’s sometimes administered through drops or tablets. Injections are less expensive and more effective, but it can mean visiting your GP every fortnight for up to five years.
Preventing hay fever before it strikes
Before you try medications, you may like to think about preventing or limiting symptoms using some of these other methods:
Checking pollen count
With a national network that tracks pollen count on a daily basis, it’s easy to check the pollen count before stepping outside. Not sure whether to open the windows at home or leave them shut? Checking your weather app on your phone should give you all the information you need. The Weatherzone smartphone app provides a range of weather information, plus a daily pollen count for all capital cities (except Darwin).
Try to avoid windy days
Most of the pollen that causes allergies is produced by airborne pollen from grasses, trees and weeds. On windy days, these pollens can travel quickly, wreaking havoc on your symptoms. Talk to your boss about whether working from home would be a possibility on these days. It is also advised to avoid going outside following a thunderstorm.
Avoid wearing contact lenses in dusty environments
When it’s hot, dry and dusty, try to avoid wearing contact lenses as the presence of the lens can cause damage to your cornea if you scratch your eyes. If you must wear them, try wearing sunglasses as well for a bit more protection.
Consider your hay fever when growing your garden
If you know you are susceptible to hay fever, consider planting a low allergen garden around the home. Remove weeds and grass from window areas, and avoid planting tree species that originate from the northern hemisphere as these produce the highest amounts of pollen.
Plan your day trips
If considering a Spring picnic, choose your location wisely. Ragweed is commonly found in fields, near riverbanks and in rural areas, and is one of the biggest culprits that causes hay fever symptoms. Also, avoid the pellitory weed that often flourishes on council land and in established gardens.
Wash your eyes frequently
Rinsing your face and eyes with cold water can help to flush out pollen and other microscopic particles. When getting in from a day outdoors, shower and wash your hair. Showering helps remove pollen from your skin and hair, and can help to prevent a night time allergy attack. All information in this article is intended for general information purposes only. Information should not be considered medical advice and is in no way intended to replace a consultation with a qualified medical practitioner. CBHS endeavours to provide independent and complete information, and content may include information regarding services, products and procedures not covered by CBHS Health Cover policies. For full terms, click here.