For many who live in the UK, summer is a time of spending more time outdoors. But for the 16 million people who suffer from hay fever, the summer months can be a miserable haze of streaming eyes, an itchy throat, congestion and tiredness. In extreme cases, hay fever can feel like a mild bout of flu that lasts for several months.
The term 'hay fever' can be misleading since it is not caused by hay and there is no fever! Also known as 'seasonal allergic rhinitis', hay fever is caused by an allergy to pollen. There has been a marked increase over the last four decades, with one in four Britons now suffering from this condition.
Respiratory physician, Professor Stephen Durham explains: "If you have allergic rhinitis, the best thing to do is try and identify what allergen is causing your symptoms and then come up with an action plan on how to avoid these triggers. If you experience symptoms during spring, for example, you're more likely to be allergic to tree pollen. Grass pollen, meanwhile, is more prevalent from late May to early August, whilst weeds and certain shrubs release their pollen in late summer."
Hay fever not only causes a series of flu-like symptoms but can also trigger or aggravate symptoms relating to other conditions such as asthma and food allergies. Interestingly, about 50 per cent of patients who are allergic to certain tree pollens also suffer from mild food allergies.
This is what's known as 'oral allergy syndrome' where people develop a minor reaction to foods they usually tolerate well. Foods that can cause minor allergies include fresh fruits and nuts such as apples, hazelnuts, peaches, other stone fruits and certain root vegetables.
Professor Durham continues: "We see more than 2,000 people per year with allergies. Our allergy testing service helps us to determine the exact cause of the allergy so that we can come up with a plan to manage triggers and treat the conditions."
"Skin prick tests with relevant allergen extracts as dictated by the patient's story are helpful in confirming allergen sensitivity, as are blood tests designed to detect allergy antibodies 'IgE antibodies'. These tests, in combination with the patient's medical history, will help to provide an accurate diagnosis."
Top tips for beating hay fever symptoms
The following tips can help you avoid pollen and reduce the severity of hay fever symptoms:
Monitor the pollen count
Keep an eye on the pollen count and stay indoors when the pollen count is high (between 50 and 150). If you know which plants and trees you are allergic too, using an online pollen calendar can help you determine when these might be flowering and what they look like so that you can avoid them.
Shut the windows
Make sure you shut the windows whilst driving, and if the windows have been opened during the night at home, shut them first thing in the morning to prevent pollen from getting in. You can also use pollen filters in the car to prevent it from coming in.
If grass pollen is one of your triggers, avoid large grassy areas and get someone else to mow the lawn. Grass allergies can cause a more severe reaction such as hives and difficulty breathing.
Protect your eyes and nose
Wearing wrap-around sunglasses can prevent pollen from getting in your eyes, whilst using a nasal spray, or smearing a nasal barrier balm or dab of petroleum jelly (Vaseline) just inside your nostrils can help trap some of the pollen.
Wash your hair and clothes
Pollen is sticky and can often get in your hair, or stick to your clothes. Washing your hair and changing your clothes regularly can, therefore, reduce symptoms, and also prevent pollen from being transferred into the home.
Keep the house clean
Pollen can stick on many household items and can become trapped in the fibres of the carpet. To prevent the pollen from becoming airborne, make sure you vacuum regularly and dust with a damp or microfibre cloth.
Take the right medication
Talk to your GP or pharmacist to ensure you are taking the right medication. People with mild to moderate hay fever symptoms may only need non-sedating antihistamines, but those with inflammation inside their nose may also need steroid nasal spray.
Professor Durham comments: "A small proportion of patients who fail to respond to these measures may benefit from immunotherapy. This is a 'de-sensitisation' process which involves gradually administering increasing doses of allergen extracts over a period of weeks and then years, which can be given to patients by injection or drops or tablets under the tongue."
Use preventative treatment
For nasal sprays to work effectively, the medication needs to be in your system for at least two weeks before symptoms appear. Try looking back to previous years to identify when your hay fever usually starts and then start taking your nasal spray a couple of weeks beforehand. Antihistamines, meanwhile, should be taken as soon as symptoms start.
Avoid exposure to other allergens
Such as pet fur or environmental irritants like insect sprays or tobacco smoke.
Like any treatment programme, hay fever treatments work best when they're tailored to you. A combination of using the right medicines and taking measures to prevent symptoms will allow you to enjoy summer without the sneezes!