What do you need to know about hay fever and allergy

Pharmacist Arif Vardalia from Coyle Chemist in Waltham Cross, Hertfordshire, has the answers to common questions about keeping the symptoms of hay fever and other forms of allergic rhinitis under control

Q: Which substances cause allergic rhinitis and what symptoms do they cause?

A: Allergic rhinitis is the inflammation of the inside of the nose and it happens when a person comes into contact with allergens (substances that cause allergies). It is these allergens that cause an allergic response in certain people who are sensitive to them. Hay fever is a type of seasonal allergic rhinitis that affects people during the spring and summer, because the level of the known allergen – pollen – is very high during these seasons.

Other allergens that can cause allergic rhinitis include:

  • House dust mites
  • Moulds
  • Pet dander (dead skin cells shed by animals)

Allergic rhinitis often causes cold-like symptoms such as sneezing, runny and bloodshot eyes, itchiness and a blocked or runny nose. These symptoms usually start soon after being exposed to an allergen.


Q: Why do some people suffer from these allergies and not others?

A: Allergic rhinitis is caused by the immune system reacting to an allergen because it perceives it as a threat to the body.

The immune system is the body’s natural defence against infections and illness. But if your immune system is over-sensitive, it will react to allergens in the same way it attacks bacteria and viruses. This is why the symptoms are very similar to colds.

It’s unclear why the immune system in some people becomes over-sensitive, but there are several factors that may increase the risk of hay fever, including:

  • Having asthma
  • Having other forms of allergic conditions such as eczema
  • Having a family history of hay fever
  • Having been exposed to tobacco smoke as a child


Q: How can you tell the difference between hay fever or another form of allergic rhinitis and a cold?

A: Hay fever is a seasonal illness because pollen is at its highest level during the spring and summer seasons. So many people with hay fever start experiencing cold-like symptoms from early spring to late autumn.

Other forms of allergies such as those caused by pet dander, moulds and dust mites, are triggered when someone who has allergic reactions to them comes into contact with these allergens. Again, you may experience cold-like symptoms, as well as itching and rashes on the skin.

One of the best ways to tell the difference between an allergic reaction and having a cold is to find out whether or not you have a raised temperature, as this doesn’t happen when you have an allergy.


Q: What over-the-counter medicines are available for treating the symptoms of allergic rhinitis?

A: Allergic rhinitis primarily affects the nose, eyes and skin, and there are medicines available over-the-counter that may help all these areas. Antihistamines are the first-line treatment for all types of allergies. These come in tablet and liquid forms. Specific formulations are also available for nasal symptoms in the form of nasal sprays. Eye drops are also available to reduce itching and irritation.


Q: How can you reduce your risk of suffering from hay fever?

A: Although the exact cause of hay fever is unknown, living a healthy lifestyle – such as eating well, sleeping well, increasing exercise and reducing stress – may all help to reduce the symptoms. Taking a shower at both ends of the day can help remove any pollen that is on your body.

I also have personal experience – as have my patients – to suggest that using antihistamines as soon as symptoms begin can significantly reduce the severity of an attack.


Q: Are there also things you can do to protect yourself against other allergens, such as house dust mites and pet dander?

A: House dust mites are very difficult to eradicate completely, but there are things you can do to protect yourself, including the following:

  • Reduce carpets and rugs in bedrooms where possible (hard floors are preferable).
  • Change bed sheets and covers frequently.
  • Use a dehumidifier and open windows where possible.

Pet dander is usually a lot more prominent with cats, but dogs can produce a lot of it too. You can reduce the risk of allergens in your home by keeping your pet away from bedrooms, removing carpets and rugs where possible, regularly cleaning your pet, grooming them outside the house and cleaning surfaces and soft furniture frequently.


Q: Are there also any natural remedies you can try to reduce the symptoms of allergic rhinitis instead of or alongside OTC medicines?

A: There are some herbal allergy remedies that are popular, some of which are suitable during pregnancy and breastfeeding (always check with your pharmacist before taking any medicines while pregnant or breastfeeding). Or you could try saline nasal drops or spray, which are known to remove allergens from the nasal passages.