Getting to grips with summer sneezes

It is the most common allergic disease in Ireland, affects one in 10 people and is most prevalent between May and September.

Yet hayfever is strangely named in that it is not caused by hay and is rarely accompanied by fever.

An allergic reaction to the pollen produced by trees and plants, its symptoms include sneezing, streaming eyes and a runny nose. These are caused by a chemical caused histamine which the body produces when it absorbs pollen from the atmosphere.

Who gets it?

Although it usually develops in childhood hayfever can occur at any stage. It is commonest in young people and generally starts in the teenage years. Symptoms tend to get worse over the first two to three seasons then remain steady for the next 20 to 30 years.

Once established it normally diminishes with age. The condition can be inherited and it is not unusual for several members of the same family to be affected. Sufferers are most likely to develop it if they were born slightly before or during a pollen season. Males appear to be more prone to it.

While not considered a serious condition it is estimated that three per cent of sufferers have to take time off work due to hayfever while 22 per cent suffer severe symptoms affecting their quality of life.

Hayfever appears to affect more people today than in the past although the reasons for this are unclear. 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 towns and cities. Experts say global warming also affects it by extending the length of the season

What are the main symptoms?

The most common symptoms include sneezing, watery eyes and an itchy, runny nose. However, many sufferers also complain of experiencing a range of less obvious symptoms. These include being irritable, having nasal congestion, feeling groggy and tired and temporarily losing their sense of smell. Some find it hard to sleep and to concentrate. Hayfever symptoms are similar to those of the common cold and are easily confused with it.

When are pollen levels at their worst?

The highest pollen 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 and reaches moderate at most in towns and cities at morning time. 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 produce the highest counts.

How long does the hayfever season tend to last?

Symptoms tend to manifest for most people from the early summer months. Almost two thirds of sufferers are affected between April and June. However, one in four will suffer all year round.

What treatments are available?

Experts say hayfever is best treated early in the pollen season before symptoms such as nasal congestion become too severe and consequently more difficult to treat. The types of treatment include :-

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

* Decongestants - short term relief of congestion

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

How can you help yourself?

* If you like gardening do so on cold, 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. Generally, the best time to garden is first thing in the morning. Cool, damp mornings, especially when there is dew mean pollen levels are low first thing.

* Pay attention to the media for pollen count predictions. A pollen count of 50 or above will generally be expected to result in symptoms. However, some sufferers may experience symptoms with counts as low as 10. Stay indoors when counts are high, especially in the early evening.

* Keep windows shut especially at night

* Head to the coast for holidays where levels are lower

* Apply Vaseline to the inside lining of the nose in order to trap pollen

* Sunglasses may help prevent pollen reaching the eyes

* On hot days high pollen levels can last until the evening in cities

* Taking cod liver oil daily may help as it reduces inflammation. Some experts say 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. Eat foods high in the vitamin B complexes, manganese, chromium and iron. Plenty of garlic is good, also.

* Aromatherapy oils such as eucalyptus or olbas can be used in a candle burner while scented candles may also improve the air quality

* Avoid taking holidays in the heart of the countryside. Instead, try coastal areas where the air tends to be more pollen-free

* Keep track of the pollen count and avoid areas of high pollen concentration

* Keep your grass cut short

* Fit net curtains

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

* Shower and shampoo before bed

* Wipe dusty surfaces with a damp cloth and either mop floors every day or use a vacuum cleaner with an efficient filter

* Stay away from grassy areas, especially on warm days

* Regular weeding is recommended to control potentially problematic plants

* On dry, sunny days a fan, rather than open windows, can be used to circulate air and keep cool

* Keep car windows closed when the grass is being cut

* Don’t grow allergenic plants. Ask your garden centre about this

* Air bedclothes in direct sunlight

* Use an air filter when possible to remove pollen and other allergens from the air

* Avoid unnecessary irritants such as smoke and chemical fumes



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