Ease that sneeze

Sneezing, runny/blocked nose, red, watery, itchy eyes and an itchy throat. If you are currently under seige from these symptoms then you may be one of the 15 per cent of people who suffers from the summertime misery known as hayfever.

The most common allergic condition in Ireland it is a reaction to the pollen produced by trees and plants. It is most prevalent in summer, usually from May until September.

While it usually develops during childhood it can occur at any stage. It is commonest in young people and generally starts in the teenage years. Once established, it tends to diminish with age.

What exactly is hayfever?

It is an inflammatory condition of the nose caused by an allergy to pollen.

How common is it?

It is estimated that 15 per cent of the population or 600,000 people suffer from it.

Does it affect more people nowadays than before?

It seems to although the reason is not clear. It may be due to the increased air pollution and a higher sulphur dioxide content which would explain why there is a greater incidence of it in urban populations. Global warming also affects it by extending the length of the season.

Who gets it?

It can strike early in life with symptoms getting worse over the first two to three seasons, then remaining steady for the next 20 to 30 years.

Children born in the pollen season are most at risk.

When are the pollen levels are their worst?

What factors affect pollen count?

The highest counts are on hot sunny days with light winds and no rain. On overcast days counts are low and on cloudy days they may rise to moderate.

High pollen days tend to fall between the start of June and the end of July with some regional variations, ie, earlier in south west Cork but later in North West Donegal.

The start of the season is controlled by temperatures in March, April and May and the duration by temperatures in June and July.

Country counts are generally four to five times higher than urban ones. The count is always low early in the morning. In towns and cities during the morning the count reaches moderate at most. The peak count for these areas is between 6pm and midnight. The larger the city and the hotter the day, the later the peak. In grassy rural areas however the count may be temporarily high around mid morning but will peak between 4pm and 7pm.

Light and variable winds (below Force 4 ) produce the highest counts. Winds above this keep the count to moderate/low.

Rain in the morning prevents pollen release and keeps the pollen count low all day. Showery rain however only washes pollen out of the air so areas which remain dry may still have high pollen counts. Ongoing rain on a warm front however will totally clear the air of pollen until the next day.

Prolonged hot, dry weather will lead to diminishing counts as the release exceeds the ripening of pollen sacs.

How long does the hayfever season tend to last?

Symptoms tend to manifest from the early summer months. Almost two thirds are affected between April and June, however a quarter will suffer all year long.

What are the main symptoms?

The most obvious and uncomfortable include sneezing, itchy runny nose, itchy eyes and a feeling of being puffed-up.

However, many sufferers also experience a range of less obvious symptoms including a blocked-up feeling, irritability, congestion, grogginess and tiredness.

What treatments are available?

Hayfever is best treated early in the pollen season before symptoms, such as nasal congestion, become too severe and consequently more difficult to treat. Types of treatment include:-

* Antihistamines - these deal with sneezing, itchy nose, throat, etc

* Decongestants - short-term relief of congestion

* Nasal sprays - treat sneezing, itchy, runny nose and eyes as well as congestion and other less obvious symptoms.

What steps can you take to avoid pollen and minimise hayfever symptoms?

* Stay indoors when counts are high, especially in the early evening

* Keep the windows shut, especially at night and at peak pollen release times, such as 7am to 10am and 5pm to 7pm.

* Head to the coast for holidays where levels are lower

* Apply Vaseline to the inside lining of the nose in order to trap pollen before it is inhaled

* Wear wraparound sunglasses to stop pollen entering the eyes

* Nasal sprays are an option to prevent the onset of symptoms

* Remember that on hot days high pollen levels can last to the evening in cities

* Avoid mascara because pollen can stick to it

* Keep your fringe off your face because pollen can get trapped in your hair

* Some fruit and vegetables contain the same proteins as pollens, say experts, and eating these raw may make hayfever symptoms worse. Cross reactions may occur with apples, plums, pears, peaches carrots and celery. However, eating these cooked should help avoid any reaction

* Try to stay away from places with lots of grass, such as parks or fields

* Try to avoid cutting the grass or weeding because these activities can create clouds of pollen and spores. Instead garden on cold or dull days or immediately after or during rain. Grass flowers do not open on dull wet days and rain washes pollen out of the atmosphere

* Keep car windows closed

* Avoid drying clothes outdoors but if you do shake them well before bringing them back into the house

* Splashing your eyes with cold water regularly will help flush out pollen and soothe stinging eyes

* Taking cod liver oil daily may help because it can reduce inflammation. Some experts suggest that people should avoid alcohol, nicotine, chocolate, spices, coffee and tea. Drinking a herbal tea or a honey and lemon drink may be beneficial, too. Ensure that your intake of vitamins, minerals and trace elements is adequate, remembering to eat foods high in the vitamin B complexes, manganese, chromium and iron. Plenty of garlic is good, too. Aromatherapy oils, such as eucalyptus or olbas can be used in a candle burner while scented candles may also improve the air quality

* Use net curtains. They are ideal pollen screens

* Avoid smokey rooms and town centres as much as possible because polluted air traps pollen

* Plant protective shrubs around your garden to protect you from wind blown pollen

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