Have you been struck by hay fever this year?
- Credit: Archant
More people than ever seem to be complaining about symptoms in 2019...thankfully The Digital Doctor Bella Smith has some handy tips to help ease them.
Almost everyone's got hay fever these days, haven't they, judging by the number of times we're sneezed on? (As a passing colleague has just demonstrated, in fact.) But are more of us really coughing our way through the warmer months? Cue GP Dr Bella Smith.
"We know from studies that allergies in general and asthma cases have been increasing over the past 20 years," she says. "There appears to be an increase in cases of hay fever, especially in the last four years, and recent data shows that the pollen count appears to be increasing."
"That's a good question and there is a great deal of research going on into this phenomenon.
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"Current theories include the 'hygiene hypothesis', where we are 'too clean' and our children are not being exposed to enough micro-organisms to build their immunity and protect against allergies.
"Similarly, there is a theory that overuse of antibiotics may affect the bacteria in our gut and our microbiome [communities of bacteria, fungi and viruses] that would otherwise help protect us.
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"Another theory is that climate change and milder temperatures in spring and summer are causing higher levels of pollen, the duration that the pollen remains high, and the air humidity that could contribute to symptoms.
"Air pollution may also be a factor as research shows that hay fever was virtually unknown a few centuries ago, before cars and engines were invented. Air pollution is thought to aggravate our upper airways and increase symptoms of hay fever and asthma.
"It is also important to consider 'reporting bias', as in our new world with social media and the internet we are able to report our conditions more, are more aware of our health and are able to self-diagnose better than we did in history."
* East Anglian-based NHS doctor Bella Smith launched The Digital GP to provide online medical information and tips. It's designed to help people make lifestyle changes and improve their health and that of their families.
The Digital GP's what-to-do guide
Try to avoid exposure to high levels of pollen. Look at pollen forecasts and, if it's going to be a high-pollen day, try to change activities so you are not exposed to it, and try to close your car and home windows. You can try fitting air or pollen filters for your house or car.
Invest in a good pair of wraparound sunglasses that helps stop pollen getting into your eyes. Use Vaseline in your nostrils to avoid pollen getting into your nasal passages.
If you work or spend time outside, consider using a face mask that covers your nose and mouth - or a wide-brimmed hat, as this may act as a barrier to the pollen. Try wearing goggles if you are swimming outside.
When you are coming in from outside, wash your clothing, change your clothes, wash the dog! Use a saline nasal wash or douche to wash all the pollen out of the inside of your nose.
For pregnant women who don't want to or can't have regular medicines, using a saline wash three times a day is a safe and effective way of helping with hay fever symptoms.
If that doesn't work…
If you have tried all these basic measures and are still having hay fever symptoms, see your chemist to try some medication:
Steroid nasal sprays
In studies, these have been found to be most superior, but often we don't use them correctly. To use them correctly you must do the following:
1) Take at least two weeks before hay fever starts.
2) Use regularly - twice daily, both nostrils. Do not use ad hoc as they will not be as effective.
3) When you use them, shake the bottle well, look down (not up) and squirt into both nostrils. Do not do one gigantic sniff as the medicine will go up into your nose and straight down to your stomach. So try to hold it in your nose for 10 minutes.
There are different types - some help you sleep and some are non-drowsy. If these do not help, your GP can prescribe slightly stronger ones.
These are really effective if you have itchy eyes. You can buy them from your chemist.
If your symptoms are severe and not controlled with over-the-counter medications, you should see your GP for review.
Asthma can also be triggered by pollen, so it is important to carry your blue inhaler with you and see your GP if you are concerned.
Hay fever: The basics
"Hay fever is a common condition that affects 10-30% of adults and 40% of children in the UK and is also known as Seasonal Allergic Rhinitis," says Dr Smith.
"Hay fever is inflammation of our nasal cavity due to an allergy to certain pollens - that can be from trees, plants or grass weeds - that increase depending on the season and the weather.
"It can be mild, moderate or severe, but most cases are mild and can be managed with over-the-counter medication from the chemist. Some people, however, are affected very severely and may need to see an allergy specialist.
"Symptoms can include a runny nose, itchy eyes, sneezing, nasal congestion, an itchy throat, a cough and worsening of underlying asthma. In severe cases, hay fever can affect your sleep, exercise and the ability to go to work or school."
What happened when I tried out some over-the-counter relief products
It's spring 1970, the sun is beating down and Norman Greenbaum's Spirit in the Sky has pushed Dana's Eurovision Song Contest-winning saccharin ballad All Kinds of Everything off the top of the pop charts. I'm seven years old and have sore, weeping and swollen eyes. I must look like those poor rabbits with myxomatosis (though, obviously, they are much worse off).
We'd moved the previous Christmas to the eastern edge of Ipswich. On, it seems, the Suffolk Sandlings. The heathlands, sand and gorse bushes thereabouts are fingered as the culprits for my emerging allergic rhinitis.
The doctor prescribes little yellow pills called Piriton. They bring some relief. But weekends in the garden are still an ordeal. Never puts me off making dens with deckchairs and old blankets, though.
It eases as the years go by. The eyes become less sore. For much of adulthood, it's been like having a cold: invariably bunged; always a slight cough; generally bleurgh. (Sorry.)
In 1992 another move: to a village. Searing-yellow oil seed rape, growing 300m from the house, signals the start of "the season". Later, the harvesting of cereal crops sends dust into the air that makes breathing harder.
It's been like that ever since.
Mind you, people with hay fever tend to plough on, don't they, if they can? (With a little help from antihistamine tablets and a Beconase nasal spray.)
In recent years, though, it's got worse. So it's interesting to hear from Dr Bella Smith that there appears to have been a rise in cases of hay fever, especially in the past four years. Our eyes and noses bear it out.
I've been trying a couple of other things to see if they're golden bullets - both recommended by other people.
One's a Benadryl NaturEase nasal spray. The other is the O2 Nose Filter from 3M. Made from clear rubber, and latex-free, it sits inside the nostrils. Layers of electrostatic material are said to capture pollen particles before they do damage.
They cost £5.99 for three pairs and each one can be worn for up to 12 hours.
What's the verdict on these two things? Hard to say. I'd need to try the nasal filters for a decent length of time to assess their effectiveness in different temperatures and on days of various wind speeds and directions.
What I can say is that the Benadryl seems pretty quick-acting.
For hay fever sufferers, probably the best strategy is to try lots of things and stick to the one that works best for you.