Non hayfever sufferers will never know the pain those of us with an aversion to pollen have to go through once the sun starts shining; the constant supply of Kleenex (stuffed in handbags, pockets, sleeves - you name it) and the sheer panic when you’re caught out (inevitably in a meeting). The ‘are you ok?’ red-raw eyes and the downright ‘I-want-to-rip-my-own-head-off’ awfulness of it all. The struggle, as they say, is real.
So we’ve enlisted allergy expert Dr Dermot Ryan to share his expertise in order to bust through the common myths associated with the dreaded pollinosis and bring us all some much-needed relief. The bad news? Hayfever as a phenomenon ain’t going away and if anything appears to be getting worse (read it and weep); “There’s no doubt that allergic rhinitis (that’s hayfever to you and I) is increasing year on year, not just in the UK but across the globe in general.
If I think back to my own childhood hardly anyone displayed allergy symptoms and then in the 80s we suddenly saw an explosion in incidences of hayfever even in countries where previously there were none.” The reason? “There are many reasons why allergies seem to be increasing in the modern world. One of the main ones is the hygiene hypothesis which centres on the notion that children these days aren’t exposed sufficiently to bacteria and diseases so that the development of the immune system is supressed. Changes in climate also mean that pollens we didn’t see before such as Ragweed have created problems in the south when they used to be more of a Scandinavian problem. The food we eat has become more allergenic thanks to it being highly processed, the introduction of carpets and central heating in the home has increased humidity and moulds. There are generally more c-sections being performed (which means the babies aren’t being exposed to bacteria in the birth canal) as well as a decrease in breast feeding and we can’t deny the huge impact that co-factors such as smoking have had with mothers who smoke being far more likely to have a child with allergies. All of the above is essentially a perfect storm of events resulting in more people experiencing allergic reactions,” adds Dr Ryan.
So what’s the dealio with hayfever and how can we avoid it? We bring you our hayfever fact check:
Myth: Stay in the city to avoid hayfever
“As urbanisation has spread so have incidences of hayfever,” says Dr Ryan instantly dispelling this myth. And whilst many may be allergic to the grass pollen or Rapeseed found in abundance in the countryside others, are allergic to the Plane trees found in many urban areas with cities such as London, Birmingham and Manchester now cited as hayfever ‘hot spots’ especially as pollution can make symptoms worse.
Myth: I’ve never had hayfever before so I’m immune to it
Sadly this isn’t true either according to Dr Ryan; “To develop an allergy you have to be sensitised to it ie your body recognises that protein as being abnormal and releases histamine in response. When it comes to hayfever the body is treating pollen as that abnormal protein which is of course an inappropriate response as pollen doesn’t cause any problems in the body but this intolerance to it can develop at any point – known as ‘right time triggers’. Stress is one such trigger which is why incidences of allergic rhinitis are worse during exam time for kids with the age range that suffers the worst being the 18-26 year olds. It’s triggers such as this that open the gates and allow sensitisation to become an allergic disorder. I’m seeing people in their sixties and seventies experiencing it for the first time.”
Myth: Taking hayfever medication every day must be bad for you?
Ok so this answer is admittedly not a straight ‘no’… “There have been reports recently linking antihistamines to Alzheimer’s,” concedes Dr Ryan. “The study showed an increased risk to those taking the highest levels of ‘anticholinergic’ drugs every day for more than three years however, that’s not to say that the other medication this age group was taking could have been responsible and there is still no proven direct link.” And the NHS seems to agree. In fact, Dr Ryan advises starting taking medication at least two weeks before hayfever season to dampen down the immune system and prevent it from responding as violently. “Once you’ve identified whether you’re allergic to grass, tree, flower or multiple pollens, set the alarm on your phone a couple of weeks before your symptoms start to show and commit to taking them for 6-8 weeks. A lot of people stop taking antihistamines on days when the pollen count is low but this simply allows the immune system to up-regulate itself so it’s important to take them every day.”
Myth: Antihistamines make me drowsy
“Some people are still using first generation antihistamines which are much more sedative,” says Dr Ryan. “Newer versions such as Cetirizine are much less likely to cause sedation so keep trying different ones until you find one that doesn’t make you drowsy. That said, the sedative effects can be relative to alcohol in some cases so be sure to check if you’re fit to drive or operate machinery. Nasal steroids such as Beconase are pretty safe. Some people report nose bleeds but that’s usually from them jamming the nozzle against the delicate septum rather than the medication itself.”
Myth: Avoid honey as it contains pollen
In fact, the opposite has been found to be true. “The question of honey is an interesting one,” says Dr Ryan. “Whilst there’s no hard and fast evidence to support the notion that eating honey from your local area offers you immunity to the pollen found there, Immunotherapy is certainly coming into it’s own in recent years and there is evidence to suggest it could stop you from developing new allergies. Back in the eighties they had to stop it trials such as this as it wasn’t being carried out properly and people were actually dying but recent studies where they’ve been treating grass pollen allergies by administering gradually increasing doses of allergen extracts over a period of years under the tongue (do NOT try this at home!) have found to be advantageous to people with moderate to severe hayfever. Most allergists in the UK do private practice (just make sure they’re an accredited allergist) but the NHS will consider some people if sufficiently bad. It’s definitely something that will become more popular with a potential hope of a cure.” A cure you say? Amen to that.
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