How to survive hay fever season

According to the NHS, hay fever affects up to one in five people at some point in their life. Here’s our seven-step guide to what you need to know if you’re affected

Sneezing, runny nose, blocked or stuffy nose, itchy red eyes. These are all-­too familiar symptoms to people who have allergic rhinitis, a common condition that causes inflammation and irritation to the lining of the nose, throat and eyes. It’s what happens when your immune system starts fighting substances – or allergens – that are usually harmless to other people.

Along with moulds, dust mites and animal dander, one of the most common allergens is pollen. And if your immune system reacts to pollen it means you have seasonal allergic rhinitis (in other words, hay fever).

The charity Allergy UK estimates that almost 18 million people in the UK have hay fever. Children – and particularly teenagers – are most at risk, though you can develop hay fever at any age.

As anyone who has ever had hay fever undoubtedly knows, it can make life pretty miserable. The good news is you don’t have to feel miserable because there are lots of things you can do to prevent and control your symptoms. So to help you stay on top of hay fever this year, here’s our guide to surviving the sneezing season.

Step One: Identify your allergen

You know you have hay fever, but are you aware of which type of pollen (or pollens) you react to? There are three main categories of pollen, namely tree, grass and weed pollen. An allergy to grass pollen is the most common (according to the NHS, 95 percent of those affected by hay fever are allergic to grass pollen), though you can develop an allergy to two or all three types.

So why should you know which type of pollen you’re affected by? Because different types of pollens are released at different times of the season. If you know which type of pollen you react to, you can be more prepared and take steps to control your exposure to that pollen or to manage your symptoms with allergy relief medicines.

Most people realise the type of pollen they react to because their symptoms coincide with the time a particular type of pollen is released. If you have symptoms throughout the hay fever season, your GP may recommend you for an allergy test. The problem, however, is that there are around 30 types of pollen that could be causing your symptoms – and the times at which they are released can vary (though according to Asthma UK, many people think hay fever only strikes when when the grass pollen season is at its peak in June).

For instance, according to the Met Office, the pollen season is usually from March to September. But it can start as early as January and end as late as November:

  • Tree pollen: this usually starts in late March and continues to mid-­‐May, though alder, hazel and yew pollens can sometimes be released in January, while pine and lime pollens can continue as late as July.
  • Grass pollen: the grass pollen season generally runs from mid-­‐May to July, but some years it can start early in May and last until early September.
  • Weed pollen: plants such as oilseed rape, plantain, nettle, dock and mugwort usually start releasing pollen in May and continue until September. However, again, the weed pollen season can last longer.

Here’s an example of why it’s a good idea to know which pollen you’re allergic to. If you know you have an allergy to certain tree pollens that are sometimes be released as early as January or February, you may be less likely to misdiagnose your allergy symptoms as a winter cold. This may be important if you also have asthma, since according to Asthma UK being allergic to pollen is a known risk factor for asthma attacks. And that means it’s even more important for those affected to stay on top of their hay fever symptoms.

Step Two: Watch the pollen count

Once you’re aware of the type of pollen that causes your hay fever symptoms, keeping an eye on the pollen count can help prevent you getting caught short. Pollen count forecasts can keep you informed, so that you can take steps to minimise your symptoms or to avoid being exposed to pollen when it’s at its peak.

There are a few online pollen forecasts you can keep an eye on. Visit www.worcester.ac.uk/discover/pollen-­forecast.html for a simple update that tells you the level of tree, grass and weed pollens, as well as the level of fungal spores in the environment (some people can also develop hay fever-­‐like symptoms because they have an allergy to fungal spores, with up to four percent of the population thought to be affected).

The Met Office’s pollen forecast – sponsored this year by Benadryl – gives you details of the pollen count in your local area (visit benadryl.co.uk/social-­pollen-­count or go to www.metoffice.gov.uk/health/public/pollen-forecast for more information).

Step Three: Take preventative measures

Whatever type of pollen you react to, it can be difficult to avoid because pollen spores can travel for miles on air currents. But whenever possible, avoid going outside when the pollen count is high (50 or higher). If you can, keep your windows and doors shut, and if it gets too warm draw your curtains to keep the sun out.

However, if going outside is unavoidable, wear wraparound sunglasses to stop pollen getting into your eyes, and avoid grassy areas, especially in the early morning, evening and at night (which is when pollen counts are highest).

Applying a small amount of Vaseline inside your lower nostrils can also help prevent pollen from getting into your nasal passages. You may also want to try using a nasal rinse made of saline solution to flush any allergens out of your nasal passages (according to Allergy UK, these can be used as frequently as required and in conjunction with prescribed or over-­‐ the-­‐counter medicines). Saline nasal rinses for adults, children and babies are available at pharmacies.

Step Four: Keep pollen outside

If you’ve been outdoors when there’s pollen in the air, take a shower and change to remove the pollen from your skin and clothing as soon as you get home. This may help prevent your hay fever symptoms getting worse in the evening.

If you have pets that have been outdoors, avoid any contact with them during peak pollen count times as they may have pollen trapped in their fur. Experts recommend keeping pets out of the house during hay fever season. But if that’s unavoidable, wash your pets regularly to rinse any pollen from their fur and wash all bedding and soft furnishings frequently that they lie on, ideally at 60°C.

And whenever possible, avoid drying your clothes outside too, as the fabrics can transfer pollen to the inside of your home when you bring your clothes in. Instead, use a tumble dryer if you can.

If you drive, try to avoid letting pollen get into your car too. Keep the windows closed when there’s pollen in the air, and buy a pollen filter for the air vents in your car (change the filter each time your car is serviced).

Step Five: Avoid Irritants

Inhaling cigarette smoke – whether yours or somebody else’s – can irritate your airways, making your hay fever symptoms worse. So don’t smoke or let anyone else smoke in your house, especially during hay fever season. If you need help with giving up smoking, ask your local pharmacist whether they provide any stop smoking services that could help (find your nearest participating pharmacy by using the Pharmacy Finder tool at careway.co.uk).

Some people find other substances irritate their airways, such as chemicals found in house cleaning products, air fresheners, perfume and paint fumes. As with cigarette smoke, if you’re affected by one or more of these other irritants, try to avoid your exposure to them as much as possible.

Step Six: Allergy-proof your lifestyle

According to a survey by the National Pollen and Aerobiology Research Unit, which included more than 2,000 volunteers with hay fever, certain lifestyle factors can have a major impact on hay fever symptoms, including:

  1. Stress
  2. Exercise
  3. Diet
  4. Alcohol intake
  5. Sleep

In other words, taking steps to reduce your stress levels, exercising more, eating a healthy balanced diet, cutting down on alcohol and making sure you get a good night’s sleep could help you cope with your symptoms more effectively.

Step Seven: Stock up on allergy relief

If you know when your hay fever symptoms are most likely to start, make sure you have plenty of allergy relief medicines at home in good time. That’s because many experts recommend starting your allergy treatment early on when your symptoms first develop – or even before they start to show up.

Most people who have hay fever should take allergy relief medicines throughout the allergy season, even when they’re not having symptoms. However if your allergy is mild, you may only need to take your allergy medicine occasionally. If you’re not sure how, when or how often to take your chosen allergy medicine, ask your pharmacist for advice (for details of the range of allergy medicines available, see Over-the-counter relief, below).

Meanwhile, if you also have another respiratory condition such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), make sure you have your preventer inhaler with you at all times during the hay fever season.