Hayfever is a common allergy that affects 1 in 5 people at some point in their lives. It is caused by a reaction to pollen, a fine powder released by trees, flowers, grasses, and weeds.
When pollen granules come in contact with ‘mast’ cells in the lining of the eyes and nose, they trigger the release of chemicals such as histamine that can wreak a world of havoc! These chemicals cause inflammation, swelling and irritation of the lining better known as ‘rhinitis’ when it affects the nose, and ‘conjunctivitis’ when it affects the eyes. In severe reactions, the hayfever response can also involve the throat and sinuses.
Who gets hayfever?
Hayfever usually starts from school age, with symptoms improving gradually later in life. It tends to run in families and is linked to other allergic (atopic) conditions such as asthma and eczema.
When does it happen?
Unlike a cold which usually lasts 1-2 weeks, hayfever symptoms can be present over a period of weeks or months. In the UK, this is usually between March and September. Symptoms tend to be worse on hot, sunny and humid days, peaking at different times depending on the offending pollen-type:
- Tree pollen – late March to mid-May
- Grass pollen – mid-May to July
- Weed pollen – late June to September
How does it affect my eyes?
Alongside rhinitis (sneezing and runny nose), most hayfever sufferers complain of itchy, red, sticky and watery eyes. Inflammation-inducing chemicals in your tears spread across your eye surface with each blink, draining from your eye through a small hole (puncta) near your nose. This means that people tend to be more aware of symptoms at the inner corner of their eyes. The natural response is to rub their eyes, but the temporary relief of itching is short-lived. Rubbing stimulates the further release of histamine and other inflammatory chemicals exacerbating the inflammation and creating a vicious cycle!
What can I do to prevent hayfever?
There is no cure for hayfever. You may have heard that eating locally-made honey reduces reactions to pollen, but unfortunately, there is little evidence to support this claim. However, there are things you can do to help keep it at bay. During peak season, track daily pollen count reports so you know when to take extra precautions. If possible, stay indoors with windows and doors shut on high pollen count days (generally over 50). If you are out and about, here are some tips to follow:
- Wear wrap-around sunglasses to provide a protective barrier
- Spread Vaseline around your nostrils to trap pollen granules
- Avoid smoking or being around people that smoke as this can make your symptoms worse
- Use eye drops to prevent the release of histamine and other inflammatory chemicals by ‘mast’ cells in the lining of your eyes and nose. This group of medications are called ‘mast cell stabilisers’ and can be bought without a prescription from a pharmacy (e.g. Opticrom, sodium cromoglycate). They should be used 1-2 weeks before the start of the hayfever season and continued throughout.
- After spending time outdoors, shower, wash your hair and change your clothes to wash pollen away and prevent transference to indoor surfaces. Avoid drying laundry outdoors, hoover regularly and wipe surfaces using a damp cloth.
What can I do to relieve the symptoms of hayfever?
If you’re having sneezing constantly and look like you’ve been crying for several hours, here’s what you can do to help:
- Do not rub your eyes! This stimulates more release of histamine and other inflammation-inducing chemicals which makes things worse. If the itching is unbearable, rinse your eyes with cold water and apply a cold compress using a clean towel or cold pack.
- Use over-the-counter antihistamine tablets, nasal sprays and/ or eye drops – they stop histamine and other inflammation-inducing chemicals from affecting the lining of your eyes and nose.
- Use a saline rinse – preparations are available with dispensers, aimed to rinse pollen from the lining of the nose and back of the throat.