Friday 28 October 2016

'Hailey dreams of being a vet, but her hay fever won't allow it'

About one million people in Ireland suffer from hay fever, a third of them children. From extreme discomfort to sleepless nights, it can really affect a child's quality of life

Áilín Quinlan

Published 23/05/2016 | 02:30

Hailey Taylor-Furlong with her mum, Mandy. Photo: Frank McGrath.
Hailey Taylor-Furlong with her mum, Mandy. Photo: Frank McGrath.

Seven-year-old Hailey Taylor-Furlong dearly wants to be a vet when she grows up - but her chronic hay fever may put paid to that ambition long before she ever reaches college.

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As a baby, Hailey had asthma and eczema. She still uses inhalers, carries an epi-pen, has mild eczema and is allergic to certain foods such as nuts and raw eggs.

But Hailey's problems don't end there.

Even as a young child, recalls her mum Mandy, playing outdoors or in the bucolic surrounds of the Phoenix Park close to the family home in Cabra, could bring on terrible hay fever attacks, leaving her with a red, sore, streaming nose and constant sneezing.

Hailey can't tolerate very furry dogs or those with lots of hair - they can bring on similar attacks, Mandy reveals.

"She loves animals and wants to be a vet, but we tell her that she'll have to change her ideas about her chosen career because of the effect that animal fur has on her," says the mother of three.

Other triggers can include strong perfume or household cleaning products - dad has to be very careful about cutting the grass when Hailey's around, or she will get an attack.

The little girl can end up sitting upright in bed for hours on end in a bid to reduce the discomfort of the severely blocked nose which often disrupts her sleep - and regularly wakes up following a night of broken sleep complaining that she cannot breathe through her nose.

"It gets worse in the summer, but in the winter she also gets it," says Mandy.

"We try to avoid irritants and we give her antihistamines when she gets bad, but sometimes the hay fever gets so bad she doesn't even want to go to bed because her nose is so blocked.

"She will end up sitting upright with all the pillows behind her, trying to get relief from the blocked nose - it is really uncomfortable and it interrupts her sleep."

Needless to say, the constant discomfort can make Hailey irritable, which doesn't help.

"She can get quite cranky and upset with it which can make it worse," says Mandy (28).

Hailey is not alone. About one million people in Ireland - one third of them children - will suffer from the symptoms of hay fever this summer, estimates allergist Dr Paul Carson of Dublin's Slievemore Clinic.

And that's everything from sneezing to itchy eyes and ears, and in severe cases, blockage of the ears, swollen eyes and even asthma attacks.

According to the Asthma Society of Ireland, grass pollen is the most common cause of hay fever, and that up to 90pc of people with hay fever are allergic to it. It usually starts in May. Dr Carson describes it as a "dreadfully uncomfortable" condition which can be "an absolute misery" for sufferers, particularly children, who cannot always properly express what is wrong with them.

"It is not a trivial illness - it can really affect a child's quality of life. Children, because they cannot articulate exactly what is going on, tend to try to cope as best they can, whereas adults can tell you in detail of their misery."

On top of that, explains Mary Llewellyn, an experienced asthma nurse specialist, who works in general practice and with the Asthma Society of Ireland, hay fever is a very under-diagnosed condition.

"Hay fever is a very common condition in children and is under-diagnosed," she says.

While it can be a standalone condition, hay fever is also often associated with asthma and eczema. Hay fever, Mary explains, can be seasonal - it can be caused by tree or grass pollen, for example - or it can be 'perennial' which means it's there all year round.

Among the most common tree pollens are those from the horse chestnut, hazel, birch and alder. Pollen from wind-pollinated flowers such as those in the daisy family, which are not insect-pollinated, and spores from mushrooms and moulds are also well-known irritants.

Perennial, or all-year-round hay fever, can be caused by the house dust mite, furry or feathered creatures, chemicals such as bleach, certain furniture polish or perfumes or even certain foods.

According to Dr Carson, city-dwellers can suffer more than rural residents because hay fever is more aggressive in urban areas thanks to the build-up of car exhaust, particularly from diesel fumes.

"The diesel combines with grass pollen to produce a 'super pollen' which is much more irritating and produces more aggressive symptoms," he says.

The question is, what can parents do to counteract these irritants?

With seasonal allergic rhinitis, you can try to avoid it, or at least limit a child's exposure to it, according to the Asthma Society of Ireland. One way to identify which allergens are causing your child's hay fever is to keep a diary with the times and locations of when your child has symptoms.

This can help you identify what allergen or type of pollen may be causing it. You can then discuss your findings with the family doctor or health care professional.

Although there is no cure for hay fever, in most cases symptoms can be controlled. Some treatments require a prescription but many are available over the counter and your pharmacist can provide advice on suitable non-prescription treatments.

If symptoms persist it's a good idea to discuss them with your GP who may prescribe treatments such as antihistamines, eye drops, and nasal sprays or drops.

Practical ways to help a child suffering from hay fever, include washing your child's face with cool water which removes pollen from the face, and wearing a hat while outside.

Another tactic is to smear a little petroleum jelly around the nose, to trap pollen and stop it settling on the lining of the nose.

Try changing your child's clothes and washing his or her hair after you've been outside to remove any trapped pollen. Another strategy is to keep house and car windows closed during peak pollen hours of late morning and late afternoon - and if you're mowing the lawn, always ensure the windows of the house are closed.

It's very important to learn about hay fever, says Dr Carson, who explains that while 85pc of people self-medicate for the condition, they need to do it in an informed way.

He is concerned about the over-use of antihistamines, he says, because he believes, it risks creating sinus problems down the road.

"We tend to rely on antihistamines as a long-term treatment. This is okay for short bursts of pollen allergy, but the long-term use of antihistamines in hay fever symptoms or any nose/sinus allergy that is long-standing, is wrong," he warns.

"This is because it gives people some relief from the sneezing but it masks the obstruction that is building up within the nose. I believe there is a risk of creating long-term sinus problems."

Dr Carson suggests that parents make it a priority to take the family on summer holidays by the sea rather than in the country, "because offshore breezes blow pollen away".

It really is best to be prepared. Because, as Mandy explains, when hay fever symptoms erupt, life gets very uncomfortable for her child. "If Hailey's nose is not running, it's congested or else she's sneezing a lot - it's very uncomfortable and she can get embarrassed because she has to bring a lot of tissues to school."

Dealing with sinusitis

• One of the most common complications arising from hay fever is sinusitis, an inflammation or infection of the sinuses.

• Hay fever can cause an excess of mucus, which stops the sinuses from draining properly and if it cannot drain away, it can become affected with bacteria.

• Symptoms of sinusitis include a blocked or runny nose; pain in the sinus, green or yellow mucus and a high temperature.

• Sinusitis can be treated with over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol, ibuprofen or aspirin.

• However when treating children with sinusitis, if they are under the age of 16, they should not take aspirin and ibuprofen is not recommended for asthmatics.

• Seek advice from your GP or a pharmacist as to the best over-the-counter painkiller to give.

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