Spring is well and truly under way. Daffodils are in bloom, lambs are frolicking – oh, and the sniffles and itchy eyes are doing the rounds.
Allergies are common, affecting millions of adults and children in the UK, and as the headlines often remind us, the numbers are rising. But the severity of people’s reactions varies hugely.
For some, thankfully, allergies are just a mild irritation, while for others they can be extremely debilitating and even potentially life-threatening.
Hay fever is one of the UK’s most common allergies, believed to affect more than 10million people, and diagnosed cases have trebled in the past two decades.
It’s an allergic reaction to pollen – be it tree, weed, grass or shrub pollens, which the body mistakenly identifies as a threat and, in response, the immune system cranks into over-drive and chucks a load of chemicals at it.
This is the very basic concept for all allergies.
In the case of hay fever, the resulting symptoms most often involve inflammation of the nose – sneezing, runny, drippy or blocked and itchy, which is known as allergic rhinitis, and the eyes – red, sore and watery, known as allergic conjunctivitis.
These symptoms can result from sensitivity to other allergens too, like dust mites, meaning they’re therefore problematic all year round. And likewise, people with other allergies, like asthma or eczema, might find that pollen triggers symptoms of these conditions too.
But for many Brits, it’s a seasonal problem, with symptoms flaring up as the pollen counts soar.
“Hay fever is one of those things that’s quite badly documented, because so many people don’t actually go to their doctor about it, they just sort it out themselves, especially at the milder end of the scale,” says Lindsey McManus, Allergy UK’s deputy CEO.
Though exact causes for the rise in hay fever aren’t known, there are a number of theories, with environmental and climate changes believed to play a part.
A recent report commissioned by Sanofi on behalf of Opticrom Hayfever Eye Drops, predicts that hay fever rates in the UK will more than double to 31.8million by 2030, due to climate changes bringing about longer and more potent pollen seasons.
As McManus points out, though, there’s still a lot of research to be done into why some people’s immune systems behave differently, and whether it might be possible for allergic responses to be “switched off”. There are no cures presently, though various treatments can reduce and soothe symptoms and lifestyle changes can make a big difference.
“In terms of hay fever, we have seen an increase, but as with all allergies, we don’t fully understand it,” notes McManus.
It’s likely a variety of factors play a part; environmental, diet, lifestyle. “And we all live in insulated little boxes these days,” McManus adds. “We don’t get exposed to the same kind of things that actually programme our immune systems, as we did some 100 years ago.”
Lots of hay fever sufferers self-diagnose, but the only way to know for sure whether you’re allergic to a particular allergen is by being referred by your GP to a specialist for clinical tests.
But this doesn’t mean that everybody whose nose and eyes flare up in spring or summer needs to rush to their doctor.
Over-the-counter treatments can be very effective, and taking a few precautionary measures can make a world of difference too.
“Hay fever really varies from person to person,” says McManus. “Some get it very mildly and symptoms may only last three or four weeks, and they can manage on a one-a-day antihistamine. Practical things, like nasal balm, might be all some people need, while if your symptoms are more in the mild to moderate bracket, you might find eye drops and a nasal spray helps.
“Some people do find it really affects their working life, or school, and makes summer really quite miserable,” she adds. “It’s at that point that you should seek further help and see your GP.
Keep a ‘symptom diary’ so you can identify triggers and patterns
Wearing wrap-around sunglasses outdoors can help protect eyes from allergens
Washing your hair, and changing and washing clothes when you get home can help avoid bringing pollen indoors
Vaseline or nasal balm rubbed around the nostrils can ‘trap’ allergens from entering your nose
Keep windows closed at night and in the morning, when pollen tends to be most problematic