Heading Off Hay Fever
Does the idea of spring approaching have you cringing and running for cover? When you suffer from seasonal allergic rhinitis (commonly known as hay fever) dreams of springtime picnics and longer sunny days are frequently overshadowed by chronic sneezing and itching.
Hay fever affects around 1 in 5 people in Australia. Sufferers’ immune systems overreact to an environmental allergen, pollen in this case, causing a range of irritating and debilitating symptoms. These include; a runny, itchy, congested nose; irritated, itchy, watery eyes and even itchy ears, throat and palate.
People with hay fever often also suffer from secondary problems like fatigue due to poor sleep. This can affect children’s learning and impact on an adults’ ability to meet the demands of work and family.
What causes hayfever?
Seasonal hay fever is caused by pollen. While harmless for most people, pollen grains, which can be spread by birds, bees or the wind, cause no end of trouble for people with hay fever.
Types of pollen vary significantly between states and even regions and, as you might expect, the amount of pollen, or the pollen count, is generally higher on hot windy days. While it does depend on exactly what you’re allergic to, September through to February is generally the worst time in Australia’s southern states.
“Hay fever has very little to do with what’s planted in people’s backyards,” says Dr Joanne Smart, Allergy Specialist at Epworth and Director of Allergy and Immunology at The Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne.
“The pollen that most commonly affects Melbournians is rye grass and that comes through in huge volume loads from the hectares of grassland in the north of the state,” she says.
While not specifically a genetic condition, the tendency for allergy can be inherited so it’s not uncommon for hay fever to run in families with varying levels of severity.
Several simple medical measures are very effective for managing mild to moderate symptoms.
A nasal corticosteroid spray can be used safely on a daily basis to ease congestion and inflammation. Sprays can be purchased over the counter or by prescription. These are not nasal decongestant sprays, which are not recommended for long-term use.
- Non-sedating antihistamines, which block histamine release from the cells (the cause of hay fever symptoms), are available without prescription and can be taken prior to exposure or at the onset of symptoms.
- Medicated eye drops can be used for treating eye flare-ups.
Minimising exposure can also be effective. You can try:
- Staying indoors on windy days or when the pollen count is high (try using an app like the Melbourne Pollen Count).
- Wearing sunglasses.
- Keeping car windows closed and setting the air conditioner to recycle.
Allergen immunotherapy, which involves the administration of regular, gradually increasing amounts of allergen extracts by injections or sublingual drops (under the tongue), is a longer-term treatment which offers the potential for allergy cure.
“Unlike other treatments which focus on reducing symptoms, immunotherapy is about teaching the immune system to stop reacting to an allergen,” say Joanne. “It’s a big commitment, treatment takes between three and five years and can be expensive, but it can be significantly effective in the right patients.”
If you would like clarification of your allergy you can arrange for allergy testing through a blood test with your GP or allergy skin prick testing through an allergy specialist.
In Australia, allergies are very common. Around 1 in 3 people will develop allergies at some point in their life. The most common allergic conditions are food allergies, eczema, asthma and hayfever.
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