Hayfever, also known as seasonal allergic rhinitis, is a very common condition that affects two in every 10 people in the UK. It is caused by an allergy to airborne substances such as grass or tree pollen, which affects the upper respiratory passages (nose, sinus, throat and eyes).
Hayfever usually occurs during the spring and summer months. Exactly when you get it depends on which pollens you are allergic to. From May to July, grass and flowers are flowering , making these the most common cause of hayfever at this time. During spring, from March to May, pollen from trees are the most common cause of hayfever. Some people do get hayfever into the autumn months. However, this is rare and is usually caused by weeds such as nettles and docks, late flowering plants and mould spores.
What are the symptoms?
Hayfever symptoms can be similar to a cold, and include a runny nose, watery eyes and repeated sneezing attacks. As with all allergies, the symptoms happen as a result of your immune system (the body's defence system) overreacting to a normally harmless substance. In this case the substance is pollen. When the body comes into contact with pollen, cells in the lining of your nose, mouth and eyes release a chemical called histamine that triggers the symptoms of an allergic reaction.
Who is likely to be affected?
You are more likely to get hayfever if there is a history of allergies in your family, particularly asthma or eczema. Hayfever usually begins in the early teens and peaks when you're in your twenties. Research shows that many people become less sensitive to pollen as they get older and by the time they reach their mid-40s, hayfever may no longer be a problem.
Although it's more common in children, and particularly teenagers, you can develop hayfever at any time.
What causes it?
In Northern Ireland, hayfever is mainly caused by grass pollen but increasingly, tree and shrub pollen, mould spores and weeds cause it too. The pollens that cause hayfever vary from person to person and region to region. The amount of pollen in the air will also affect how bad your hayfever is.
There's more likely to be more pollen in the air on hot, dry and windy days than on cool, damp, rainy days. Research shows that pollution, such as cigarette smoke or car exhaust fumes, also makes some allergies worse.
Hayfever season can last from April to October, and some people could have symptoms as early as March. They would only have two or three months symptom free in the winter and then the cycle starts all over again.
How can you reduce the risk of getting hayfever?
If your parents are allergic to something, your chances of inheriting an allergy (it doesn’t have to be the same allergy) increases to 50 per cent.
If you smoke while pregnant, your child could be more likely to develop a tendency to become allergic. Not smoking and maintaining a healthy diet can limit the chances of passing on the tendency to your children.
Avoiding exposure to pollen is the best way to reduce the allergic symptoms associated with hayfever. Limit exposure to pollens by keeping the windows shut at night and first thing in the morning, staying indoors when the pollen count is high (between 50-150), wearing wrap-around sunglasses, or putting some Vaseline just inside your nostrils, which will trap some of the pollen.
Avoid mowing the grass and sitting in fields and large areas of grass. Washing your hands and face regularly will help, as well as avoiding exposure to other allergens such as pet fur or to other environmental irritants, such as insect sprays or tobacco smoke.
As with most allergies, the best way to control them is by avoiding triggers. However, it's difficult to avoid pollen, particularly in summer.
Even straightforward hayfever can be debilitating, with runny eyes, sleepless nights, bunged-up nose and headaches. Some people with hayfever develop asthma.
There are a range of over-the-counter products available to treat the symptoms of hayfever, including tablets, nasal sprays, eye drops and creams. Antihistamines are the usual treatment for the main symptoms, such as itchy, watery eyes and runny nose, while steroid nasal sprays are the main treatment for a stuffy nose.
Speak to your GP or pharmacist before you decide on a treatment. It's particularly important to speak to your GP if you have asthma. Hayfever often makes asthma symptoms worse and if it does, this could mean increasing the dosage of your asthma medication.