Allergies

Allergies are a reaction of the immune system to a normally harmless substance in the environment. Hayfever is an allergic reaction to pollen experienced by some people. Pollen is a fine powder produced by certain plants when they reproduce. More than half of hayfever sufferers are affected at the height of the season – between May and July. This page looks at ways to help reduce allergy symptoms and help keep the misery of hayfever away.

There are different types of pollen and spores (similar to pollen) that people may be allergic to. The main type in springtime is pollen from trees, in summer pollen from flowers, and in autumn spores from fungi. Different sufferers are susceptible to different types of pollen. On humid and windy days, pollen spreads easily. On rainy days, pollen may be cleared from the air, causing pollen levels to fall.

How do I know if I have an allergy?

The usual symptoms for allergy include:

       
  • Wheezing
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  • Runny, reddened and itchy eyes
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  • Sneezing
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  • Coughing and shortness of breath
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  • A ‘nettle rash’ on the skin
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  • Nausea and vomiting
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  • Profound tiredness

Look at your own symptoms in detail . Do they occur at any particular time of the day or year and if so, how often? Which part of the body is affected? Are there any ‘triggers’ that seem to make your symptoms worse, or do things improve when you are away from a certain environment?

If you have symptoms such as shortness of breath or trouble with breathing, nausea and vomiting, a rapidly developing rash or swelling of the face then see a doctor as these may be a sign of a more serious allergic reaction and may require immediate medical treatment.

Tips on reducing hayfever symptoms.

Avoiding exposure to pollen is the best way to reduce the allergic symptoms of hayfever, so the following can help:

       
  • Keep windows shut at night and first thing in the morning
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  • Stay indoors when the pollen count is high (between 50 and 150)
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  • Wear wraparound sunglasses.
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  • Put some petroleum jelly just inside your nostrils to trap some of the pollen.
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  • Avoid mowing the grass or sitting in fields or large areas of grass.
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  • Wash your hands and face regularly.
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  • Avoid exposure to other allergens, such as the fur on pets, or environmental irritants, such as insect sprays or tobacco smoke.
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  • Try to reduce your stress levels. There is a clear link between stress and the severity of hayfever symptoms – as stress levels drop, symptoms become milder.
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  • Exercise more. Regular exercise can improve hayfever symptoms. Aim to do 150 minutes (two and a half hours) of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, such as cycling and fast walking, every week. However, during hayfever season, it's best to avoid exercising outdoors when the pollen count is high - this is generally first thing in the morning and early evening. Instead, exercise in late morning or afternoon when pollen counts tend to be lowest. If pollen counts are really high, stick to indoor exercise, for example at your local gym or swimming pool.
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  • Eat well. People with hayfever who eat a healthy diet are less likely to get severe symptoms. Eat a varied, balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables, but be aware that some healthy foods can make hayfever symptoms worse. Foods that can worsen hayfever symptoms include apples, tomatoes, stoned fruits, melons, bananas and celery
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  • Cut down on alcohol as this can worsen hayfever. Beer, wine and other spirits contain histamine, the chemical that sets off allergy symptoms in your body. As well as making you more sensitive to pollen, alcohol also dehydrates you, making your symptoms seem worse.
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  • Sleep well. Try to avoid too many late nights during the hayfever season. People with hayfever who get a good night’s sleep tend to have the mildest symptoms.

Hayfever treatment

As with most allergies, the best way to control hayfever is to avoid the triggers. However, it's difficult to avoid pollen, particularly during the summer and even straightforward hayfever can get in the way of everyday living, causing runny eyes, sleepless nights, bunged-up nose and headaches.

A range of over-the-counter products can treat the symptoms of hayfever, including tablets, nasal sprays, eye drops and creams. Always ask your pharmacist or doctor for advice before starting to take any new medication.

Other allergens

Allergens such as house dust mites or fungal spores are also very common and allergies to pets can occur too.

House dust mites.

Dust mites are microscopic insects that breed in household dust. To try to limit the amount of mites in your house choose wood or hard vinyl floor coverings instead of a carpet and fit roller blinds that can be easily wiped clean. Clean cushions, soft toys, curtains and upholstered furniture regularly, either by washing (at high temperature) or vacuuming and use synthetic pillows and acrylic duvets instead of woollen blankets or feather bedding. Use a vacuum cleaner fitted with a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter, because it can remove more dust than ordinary vacuum cleaners. Wipe surfaces with a damp, clean cloth, as dry dusting can spread the allergens further.

Pets.

It's not the pet fur that causes an allergic reaction, it's exposure to flakes of their dead skin, saliva and dried urine. Keep pets outside as much as possible, or limit them to one room, preferably one without carpet. Don't allow pets in bedrooms, wash them at least once a fortnight and groom dogs regularly outside. Wash all bedding and soft furnishings on which a pet has lain (ideally at 60°C).

Fungal spores.

Moulds can grow on any decaying matter, both in and outside the house. The moulds themselves aren't allergens but the spores they release are – these are released when there is a sudden rise in temperature in a moist environment, such as when central heating is turned on in a damp house, or wet clothes are dried next to a fireplace. To reduce mould spores, keep your home dry and well ventilated and when showering or cooking, keep internal doors closed to prevent damp air from spreading through the house and use extractor fans. Do not dry clothes indoors, store clothes in damp cupboards or pack clothes too tightly in wardrobes. Remember to deal with any damp and condensation in your home to get the best long-term results.