Are you a fellow hay fever sufferer? Do you find yourself gearing up for the dreaded onslaught of pollen each spring? Then this guide, based on scientifically proven facts and a decade’s worth of my own allergy season experiences, is for you.
What is hay fever?
Hay fever is a form of allergic rhinitis, caused by histamine levels rising in the body as they react to pollen. It is a common allergy which currently affects 13 million people in the UK. Hay fever is often confused with a cold, as the symptoms can be very similar. The key difference is that hay fever isn’t caused by a virus and can last for weeks, or even months, whilst a cold tends to go away after one or two weeks. Although many people perceive hay fever as a trivial, mild condition, it can really take its toll on an individual’s mental and physical wellbeing.
Symptoms of hay fever, which vary in severity, can include:
- itchy, red or watery eyes (allergic conjunctivitis)
- a runny nose and blocked sinuses
- sneezing and coughing
- itchy throat, mouth, nose and ears
- loss of smell
- pain around the temples and forehead
- skin irritation or rash
- sensation of mucus running down the back of the throat (post-nasal drip)
Unfortunately for those of us who suffer, there is currently no cure. However, don’t despair – for some unknown reason, many individuals find their symptoms markedly improve as they get older. There are also a variety of things you can do to treat hay fever.
Now is the best time to get ahead of the allergies and tackle any symptoms before they arise. This comprehensive guide is sure to help you put an end to both the sniffles and the snivels.
Start treatment early
Research from Harvard Medical School has shown that starting antihistamine medication early can lessen the symptoms when they eventually hit. This has been linked to the fact that some drugs, such as corticosteroid nasal sprays, take a few weeks to become fully effective.
If you’re over 18, you can purchase such nasal sprays at your local pharmacy or supermarket. These line the inside of the nose, block irritants, and soothe the symptoms of histamine. Alternatively, there are drug-free nasal sprays available to purchase, or you can make your own saline nasal solution. Over the counter throat sprays and rinses may also be useful if you have a scratchy, congested throat, or you can make your own saltwater gargle treatment.
Taking hay fever tablets and putting eye drops in daily throughout allergy season makes a massive difference too, so stock up on supplies. Always read the label to check you’re taking the correct dosage.
Have a spring clean
Don’t allow settled pollen to linger! Dust with a wet cloth and hoover regularly, preferably with a vacuum cleaner that has a HEPA filter (this traps a large number of very small particles that other vacuum cleaners would simply recirculate back into the air of your home).
Using an air purifier can cleanse the air and reduce the presence of allergens such as dust mites, pollen and dander. Mould on indoor plants can trigger allergy symptoms, so check up on your plants routinely, removing dead leaves and examining the soil for any mould.
Pollen can stay on your hair and skin for a long time, so remove pollen by having a shower or bath before bed and washing your bedsheets frequently. Spending a night tucked up in a duvet layered with pollen can seriously disrupt your sleep and have you feeling proper rough the next day.
Keep the outdoors, outdoors
Avoid unnecessary trips out as much as you can, especially on dry, windy days and when the pollen count is super high (you can see the pollen count on your local weather channel). Remember, the pollen count is usually higher in the early mornings and evenings, so schedule your outings carefully and consider doing indoor exercise.
Take your shoes and clothes off sharpish when you come back in, so that you don’t traipse about the place scattering pollen in your wake as innocently as Hansel and Gretel scatter breadcrumbs. It’s best not to dry your clothes outside on a washing line throughout allergy season too, as they will collect oodles of pollen. Steer clear of strong perfumes, fresh flowers and smoke; these can all irritate the nasal airways and lungs, making your symptoms worse.
No matter how good the weather, keep windows and doors shut as much as possible to minimise exposure to pollen – particularly in your bedroom, where you likely spend a third of your time. Finally, don’t do anything silly like planting petunias or mowing the grass; gardening and outdoor work in general stirs up debris, dirt and – you guessed it – pollen.
When you do go outdoors, channel your inner celebrity and put on some sizeable wraparound sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat to create a protective physical barrier between your peepers and airborne pollen. On cooler days, opt for a hooded jacket or allergy mask.
Applying Vaseline or another heavy-duty lip balm around the edges of your nostrils can also trap allergens before you inhale them, preventing the allergic reaction from occurring. You should also smear this balm onto the apples of your cheeks and beneath your eyebrows; as an added bonus, this can give you a dewy glow (very handy if you find your eyes and skin are too sensitive for cosmetics during the summer). There are also simple, organic, drug-free balms on the market such as Hay-Max which have the same effect. This method of using a barrier balm moisturises the skin too, which is great if you’ve been blowing your nose excessively.
I’d also recommend investing in lots of tissues (NOT handkerchiefs – in case you didn’t know by now, handkerchiefs are far less hygienic than single-use tissues). When you blow your nose, blow gently, as if you blow your nose too hard you might cause it to bleed on top of what you’re already dealing with. Although hay fever itself is not contagious, the associated symptoms can contribute to the spread of germs, so it’s important to practice good hygiene. Always have disposable tissues and sanitiser to hand. Place used tissues in the bin straight away and wash your hands with soap and hand-hot water for at least 60 seconds.
Take extra good care of your eyes
Try to avoid rubbing your eyes at all costs, cos once you start rubbing ‘em, it’s hard to stop, and you might end up with tears streaming down your face (insisting that “it’s just hay fever!” like Tracy Beaker).
Our body’s natural response is to wash pollen out, which is why we end up with watery eyes. They can also become red, itchy, and sticky as the immune system reacts. If your eyes feel like they’re on fire and you don’t happen to have an eye bath, soak some cotton wool pads in ice water and place them onto your lids to soothe them for five to ten minutes while you lie down, then gently wipe them over the eye area when you’re finished for the perfect pick-me-up.
If this doesn’t work, perhaps try a spot of eye yoga, or pop a couple of spoons in the fridge for a few hours and use the backs to give your under-eyes a refresh instead. This cooling eye gel from The Body Shop is also a dream for when they’re giving you trouble. As a side note, try not to experiment with any wild new skincare or makeup products, as the last thing you want to do is introduce more allergens to your face. Maybe leave the dramatic winged eyeliner and cut creases until later on in the year.
Learn what works for you
Come to understand your personal pollen trigger, as this allows you to predict when you’re most likely to be hit by hay fever havoc. Tree pollen is typically high in March and April, whilst grass pollen peaks May to July. Weed pollen arrives late to the party between June to August.
You may personally find certain foods alleviate symptoms, though this area is all a bit wishy washy and anecdotal. For example, some hay fever sufferers swear by local honey, but there is no actual scientific evidence to show that this has any effect. Just make sure you’re eating a healthy, balanced diet, as studies have shown people who do this experience milder symptoms. Vitamin C is a natural antihistamine, so try to eat lots of fresh fruit. Omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, sardines and herring, are anti-inflammatory so get a lorra them on board too. If you’re feeling really bunged up, hot curry is believed to ease symptoms by opening up the nasal passages, so go heavy on the spices! Red grapes and herbal teas are also strongly recommended as they reduce respiratory tract inflammation.
It’s equally important that you pay attention to what can exacerbate your symptoms. Dairy products, coffee and sugary foods encourage the production of mucus and can make nasal congestion worse. Similarly, alcohol and lack of sleep have been shown to amp up your symptoms – the two kind of go hand in hand.
Keep animals at arm’s length
Pets pick up an insane amount of pollen on their fur and paws and then have the audacity to continue looking adorable. This can be extremely challenging, but try and resist the temptation to pet them, as the hair on these furry little monsters carry airborne allergens, including pesky pollen.
If you do end up having a cuddle, wash your hands thoroughly to avoid pollen getting all up in your grill. You should attempt to keep them off soft furnishings and away from the bedroom. Some owners find that saturating their pet’s coat with a spray containing oatmeal and aloe keeps the pollen at bay. Wiping their paws with a damp towel several times a day is another possible solution.
Though this might be difficult, if you have a dog, dissuade them from rolling around in grassy areas and bathe them frequently. Grooming your pets after each outing in a garage or garden so nothing comes inside will also work wonders.
Take it easy
I realise this is a bit rich after all the information that’s just been thrown your way, but honestly, allergy season is no joke and can have you feeling seriously down. This is me giving you official permission to take some time for yourself if your symptoms are really aggravated. Would you expect the highest standards out of someone with a really bad head cold? Rest up and indulge in a little self-care. If you’re having a particularly bad day, look up pictures of dogs sneezing and have a giggle.
It can be tough to make the most of summer and cope with environmental triggers all throughout the season. Hay fever has even been linked to depression, anxiety and Reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder; experts say inflammation, tiredness, loss of smell and inflammation can all have a huge impact on mood, so make sure to look after your mental wellbeing and seek medical help when it’s needed, either from a GP or counsellor.
If you don’t feel able to manage your symptoms with all of these over-the-counter medications and lifestyle changes, your GP may refer you for immunotherapy. This is a specialist service which may not be available everywhere and is only used in severe cases; it usually starts in the winter, about three months before allergy season begins.
Did you know?
- If you live in a town or city, there are lots of dust clouds which can’t disperse because of a lack of wind. These combine with traffic pollution and the sun’s rays to trap pollen closer to the ground and elsewhere, which correlates with the large number of hay fever sufferers in urban areas. A hay fever report published in 2010 predicted that by 2030, half of the people in the UK would suffer from an allergy to pollen because so many people are moving to live in cities.
- The term ‘hay fever’ takes its name from a belief many people held in the 19th century that the smell of hay in the summer irritated the body.
- If your parents suffer from hay fever and allergies more generally, you are more likely to suffer too (thanks, mum and dad).
Professionals don’t wish for individuals to become unduly anxious about confusing allergies with COVID-19. However, bear in mind that if you are experiencing a high temperature, new continuous cough or loss of smell or taste, you must self-isolate, as these could be signs of coronavirus. Most people can manage their symptoms at home with paracetamol and plenty of fluids, but if you feel worse, you should use the NHS 111 checker or call NHS 111.
Featured image credit: TED Ed