The truth about hay fever causes & treatments

Myths and facts surrounding hayfever


What is hay fever?

Hay fever is a very common allergic reaction that causes inflammation mainly around the eyes and in the nose, as a reaction to pollen in the air. More than 400 million people worldwide suffer from this affliction!

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Pollen is the culprit when it comes to the cause of hay fever; it is a very fine, powdery substance which exists to cross pollinate male genetic material from one plant to the female genetic material (stigma) of another plant. It can also be used in self pollination of the same plant.

Pollen, because it is so small, can be blown into the air and get into your eyes and up your nose where it can start the allergic reaction.

It is worth noting that a person can develop this allergy at any time in their life.

What happens during an allergic reaction?

An allergic reaction occurs when the body wrongly identifies a substance as being harmful when it is not. As a result, the immune system attacks the allergen believing it to be a threat. The allergic response is started by lymphocytes (white blood cells) which are major players in the immune response.

Ordinarily, lymphocytes will protect the body against unwelcome visitors such as bacteria, viruses and toxic substances, they will check every component of the body to ensure that they are not a threat and if anything suspicious is found they flag it up as an invader. The body will then go on to produce antibodies to fight the ‘threatening substance’, in this case, pollen, and so the allergic response begins.

Symptoms of hay fever

The symptoms of hay fever can look very similar to those of the common cold. They include the following:

  • Coughing and sneezing
  • A blocked nose which may lead to loss of sense of smell
  • Runny nose
  • Inflamed eyes that may be red, itchy and watery
  • Itching of the throat, mouth, ears and nose
  • Blocked sinuses leading to pain in the head
  • Headache
  • Earache
  • Lethargy

If a person suffers asthma they may experience additional symptoms:

  • Tight chest
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing with the cough

The major difference between hay fever and a cold is that a cold will only last for 1-2 weeks whereas hay fever will last for as long as pollen is in the air which may be for weeks or even months 

Treatment for hay fever

There are a number of self help treatments that can be tried. These include:

  • Use petroleum jelly around the nostrils. This will create a barrier that will trap particles of pollen and prevent them from entering the nostrils.
  • Wearing sunglasses during the day will create a barrier and make it more difficult for pollen to enter the eyes.
  • Stay indoors as much as possible.
  • Showering and changing clothes after having been outside will prevent any pollen that you may have collected from entering the passages.
  • Any barrier to pollen will help with hay fever so keeping doors and windows shut wherever possible is recommended.
  • Keep the house clean! Vacuuming and dusting with a damp cloth will keep pollen levels down.

Hay fever medications are available from a pharmacy and a pharmacist will be able to help with recommendations.

To help with itchy, watery eyes, sneezing and blocked nose the pharmacist may suggest antihistamine drops, tablets or nasal sprays.

If symptoms continue to get worse and do not respond to treatments suggested by the pharmacist it is advisable to seek advice from your GP

There is no connection between hay and hay fever!- TRUE

The label ‘hay fever’ was first coined in the early nineteenth century when it was believed that fresh hay was the culprit for the allergic reaction we know as hay fever. It was a British scientist named Charles Blackley who made the correct connection between hay fever and pollen in 1859; the story goes that he sneezed when he sniffed a bouquet of bluegrass.

Not only did he deduce that pollen was the culprit but also notes that the lighter pollen from trees and grass was more likely to cause the allergic reaction because it could become airborne more easily. As the scientific world did not yet understand the mechanics of an immune response he put the reaction down to being a result of toxins in the pollen

Hay fever is something that you grow out of - TRUE AND FALSE

Hay fever often begins as a child and as the years go by symptoms can become less intense. At least this tends to be true for about half of people who develop hay fever as a child and for a lucky 20% of sufferers their symptoms will disappear entirely. The most likely period of time for the symptoms to disappear is when they are in their 50’s. Sadly for everyone else, the symptoms will continue to recur every year when the season begins.

Unluckily for some people, it is possible to develop hay fever later in life, even into their 30’s and 40’s and it would seem that the number of cases in some areas is actually rising.

Hay fever symptoms are better after a shower of rain - TRUE AND FALSE

It is true that light or moderate rain can have the effect of ‘washing’ the pollen out of the air; however, heavy rain can actually make the pollen problem worse

US researchers performed a study into the effects of rainfall on pollen levels in the air. The study was done over a 14 year period of meteorological data and pollen levels. The results showed that if the rainfall was less than 10cm the pollen count fell but as soon as the rainfall rose above 10cm the pollen count rose. Heavy rain, especially if it was accompanied by wind tends to ‘whip up’ the pollen into the air

Hay fever is worse during the day - TRUE AND FALSE

Whilst we accept that the general rule of thumb is to stay indoors during the day as this is when pollen counts tend to be at their highest there has been evidence to suggest that it may depend on which particular strain of pollen is the culprit in your particular case of hay fever.

Studies were carried out in Poland whereby pollen traps were set up on a rooftop and studies were made of the levels of concentration of five common pollen types; the levels were measured both during the day and during the night.

Indeed it was shown that the pollen from mugwort exhibited lower levels at night, however, the levels of grass and alder pollen did not vary greatly over the 24 hours of observation.

There are several factors that will influence which pollen is in the air at which time; it will depend on how easily the pollen becomes airborne (how light it is), how far the pollen will tend to travel and the time of day that the particular species releases its pollen.

The answer to whether the symptoms of hay fever are worse in the day is ‘it just depends’; It depends on which pollen you are allergic to and which grasses are common where you live.

Antihistamines taken for hay fever can make you sleepy - SOMETIMES

Some of the symptoms of hay fever can be eased when the histamines which cause the reaction are blocked using antihistamines. In the case of the older types of antihistamines, a side effect was drowsiness. If hay fever had a tendency to disturb sleep this was not necessarily an unwanted side effect.

The next generation of antihistamines introduced in the 1980’s and 1990’s are less likely to cross over into the brain from the circulation and so have fewer side effects; this includes either not causing or causing less drowsiness.

Honey can reduce the symptoms of hay fever - JURY IS OUT

There has been very little investigation into whether or not this is true.

A small study in the US between pasteurised honey, unpasteurised honey and a placebo failed to suggest that there was any truth to the claim.

A small study in Finland however suggested that ordinary honey made only a small difference to the symptoms but ‘honey with added birch pollen’ did appear to help.

Neither set of results suggested any definitive results and so more investigation is required to either prove or disprove this theory.

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