One in four children suffer from hay fever but relief can come in the form of desensitisation courses
This month, at least one in five of us will be suffering from the symptoms of hay fever. Most of us will not bother to visit our GP for advice, but will rely on over- the-counter medication to keep the sneezing, runny nose and itchy eyes under control.
The problem, according to Dr Rubaiyat Haque, consultant allergist at Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital, is that often hay fever sufferers do not get the right treatment.
For some, taking an antihistamine pill is sufficient, but for many, the only way to combat the allergy is to take the full range of medications available. "If the pill works that's fine," says Dr Haque, "but those who find that they are still suffering should also use nasal steroid sprays, and cromoglycate eye-drops every day.
For a successful result, Haque stresses that the medication should ideally have started a couple of weeks before the expected onslaught of pollen. Allergic rhinitis, known more commonly as hay fever, comes from the pollen released by grass. Tree pollen can also be a cause. Anyone allergic to this pollen would have found that their symptoms started as early as February.
According to a worldwide report carried out by The International Study of Asthma and Allergies in Children, 25 per cent of children between the ages of 11 and 21 suffer from hay fever. And there is a link between hay fever and asthma. "Avoidance and good management techniques help prevent asthma in later life", says Lindsey McManus, executive director of Allergy UK. Hay fever is also more likely if there is a family history of allergies, particularly asthma or eczema.
Keep windows shut and stay indoors
Be wary of days when it is hot, dry, or windy. During these periods, there is likely to be more pollen in the air than on cool, damp, rainy days. Research shows that pollution, such as cigarette smoke or car exhaust fumes, can also make allergies worse.
Avoiding exposure to pollen is the best way to reduce the allergic symptoms of hay fever. If possible, keep windows shut at night and first thing in the morning, stay indoors when the pollen count is high (between 50 and 150), and wear wraparound sunglasses when you go out. Putting some petroleum jelly just inside your nostrils will trap some of the pollen. Washing your hands and face regularly will help too. Avoid exposure to other allergens, such as pet fur, or environmental irritants such as insect sprays.
Anyone with persistent symptoms can ask their doctor to refer them for immunotherapy, also known as desensitisation. This can only be done if all other treatments have been tried for a minimum of a season and failed. Immunotherapy is carried out over a three-year period but its effects are long lasting.
The patient is tested to ascertain exactly what they are allergic to - grass, tree or even weed pollen. Children are generally given drops or a small tablet taken under the tongue. Adults, however, can be given a course of injections, which are more effective but necessitate a hospital visit because of potential allergic reactions.
For those who would prefer to use drug-free treatments, acupuncture, homeopathy and herbal remedies are available and claim to relieve or prevent hay fever symptoms. AcuMedic uses an Chinese medical approach to treating and preventing hay fever. "We are able to achieve excellent results through the use of acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine and rhinolight phototherapy," says AcuMedic's Man Fong Mei.
This last technique uses light to strengthen the body's reaction to allergens. The method is scientifically unproven, but client satisfaction is high, says Mei.
Entrepreneur Max Wiseberg is marketing a new treatment called HayMax. These are a range of organic pollen barrier balms that he claims will block out the pollen rather than treating it.
Currently, there are two large international hay fever research studies running in the UK. Dr Adam Fox, a paediatric allergy consultant at St Thomas's Hospital is studying the close link between hay fever and asthma. "We are hoping to show that being desensitised for hay fever can dramatically reduce the likelihood of a child developing asthma."
The other study, at the Royal Brompton Hospital, is researching the most effective and long lasting type of desensitisation. If you are interested in volunteering to take part, visit www.hayfeverstudy.co.uk