Life Health & Wellbeing

Tuesday 27 September 2016

The small steps I take to manage hay fever

Long-term sufferer Vicki Notaro learned early on that consistency is key when keeping her allergy symptoms at bay

Published 24/05/2016 | 02:30

Vicki Notaro has learned to keep her hay fever under control. Photo: Caroline Quinn.
Vicki Notaro has learned to keep her hay fever under control. Photo: Caroline Quinn.

It's Father's Day and I'm sitting in the waiting room of the local children's hospital. I'm about five or six, and it's hot out, as it always seemed to be when I was a kid in the early 1990s. I'm restless and upset, because my eyes have swollen shut, and I'm trying my hardest not to touch them. But I'm scared because I can't see, and they've started to really hurt. I've been scratching them since last night but despite fresh air, a salt water wash and cold teabags on my eyes, my eyes are still streaming and prickling.

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In a panic, my dad has brought me to Our Lady's in Crumlin because I'd suffered from conjunctivitis a lot as an infant. I think my parents fear some sort of eye problem, but the doctor takes one look at me, a look out the window at the beaming June sun, and diagnoses hay fever. It was the first time I'd heard the term that means someone is allergic to seasonal pollen, but it definitely wasn't the last.

Touch wood, that was the first and only time I've ever been brought to hospital in my 30 years on the planet, and others aren't as lucky. But hay fever has been the bane of my life ever since - no exaggeration.

For some it presents as a persistent and irritating itch in the eyes, nose and throat, or cold-like symptoms in summer. For me, it's always been a lot more serious.

When I was little, my mother managed it diligently, made sure I had eye drops and nasal sprays and eventually got rid of all the carpets in our house because they held on to pollen and dust. She installed an ioniser in my room to help me breathe better as I slept, and made sure there were no fresh flowers or plants in close proximity. But as I got older, the condition got worse.

When I was 11, I started suffering regularly with sinusitis. My nose was often congested and tender to touch, and I was suffering from fatigue, headaches and sore throats as a result. Every doctor I've ever visited tells me the primary cause of my chronic sinus problems is allergic rhinitis which is, you guessed it, caused by pollen, pet hair and other airborne allergies.

Of course, my hay fever made the problem worse, so decongestants, steroid sprays, salt water washes, daily antihistamines and painkillers entered the picture too.

Thus, I came to dread summer - mainly because of what I couldn't, or shouldn't, do. I wasn't supposed to roll around in the field with the other kids, play with freshly cut grass or climb trees, but I certainly did anyway and suffered the consequences.

Mum knew she couldn't stop me picking pretty flowers on the green, playing rounders with my neighbours or making daisy chains, but she'd always make me rinse my hands and face and brush my hair before bed to get rid of any pesky pollen particles.

She wanted me to be like everyone else, especially because nobody else really understood what was wrong. I didn't have asthma, so my condition wasn't life-threatening and I never had a dramatic emergency where I couldn't breathe. It was simply that, aside from the annoying sneezing and weepy eyes, pollen made me sicker than everyone else.

Now allegedly a fully grown woman, I know how to manage my hay fever. I've tried everything to help it, from a steroid injection (it made me sick) and local honey (didn't do much) to every kind of machine and gadget known to man that claims to make a difference. I've spent a fortune trying to find a cure.

However, the only thing that ever works with any kind of consistency is taking a daily antihistamine as soon as the grass starts growing after the winter, rinsing with salt water as often as possible, and constantly blowing my nose.

I wear sunglasses to stop pollen getting in to my eyes (and eyeliner to deter me from rubbing them) and I don't bury my face in my dogs' fur when they've been running around the garden. I just avoid triggers at all costs.

Because with hay fever, as with many other seasonal irritations like heat stroke and sun burn, prevention is key. Allergies do affect your immune system, so it's really important to eat well, get enough sleep and stay hydrated.

Dr Jean Emberlin, who works with Opticrom, says that hay fever sufferers should be prepared.

"Remember to check the pollen forecast on television or online before you leave to help you plan your day and avoid going outside when the pollen counts are high.

"When they are, keep windows and doors shut, and don't hang clothes outside - this allows pollen to cling to the fabric."

She also says it can strike at any age; I may have had it for as long as I can remember, but most people develop a pollen allergy between the ages of eight and 15.

"Late onset hay fever ( in those over about 35-years-old) seems to be more common now than a few decades ago, but the reasons for this are unclear."

Things like cigarettes and wine in the sunshine don't help with symptoms - my penchant for sauvignon blanc is definitely curbed in the summer because the histamines in it increase the likelihood of reactions.

"Alcohol in excess will suppress the immune system and can make symptoms worse," explains Dr Emberlin. "In some cases dairy food can increase mucus secretion and cigarette smoke can cause irritation to the airways and eyes and make the symptoms worse."

But it's important not to get stressed out about your symptoms because of course, that can make them worse too. For me, it's not all bad. I haven't let my hay fever stop me from doing very much as an adult and I don't dread the warmer months anymore - I relish them!

I go to festivals and sleep in fields, have picnics in the park and exercise outdoors. I just have to always think ahead and make sure I have my medication on me, all the while remembering preventative measures.

Of course, it's upsetting that I can't breathe in the smell of freshly cut flowers, but my hay fever also gets me off grass-cutting duty. There's always a silver lining.

What I've learned on my hay fever journey

After a quarter century of living with the ill effects of hay fever, I've learned a lot, but I'm always picking up new tips and tricks.

• Vitamin C is a natural antihistamine. "Fill your diet with fresh fruit and vegetables to ensure a steady intake throughout the day," says A. Vogel's nutritional therapist Alison Cullen.

• I've also learned to eat as healthily as possible, and load up on anti-inflammatories like carrots, sweet potatoes, pineapples and avocados.

• The key with taking medication is consistency. If I never allow my allergic rhinitis to flare up, I won't suffer its symptoms, so I take a daily generic anthistamine in summer. Prevention is the key to surviving hay fever.

• I know to prepare if I'm outdoors. Wear a hat, bring sunglasses, take your nasal spray with you.

• Never rub your eyes when you've been out and about - it's the surest way to itching and streaming. I wear lots of eye make up to discourage myself from scratching!

• Drink lots of water. Staying hydrated is really important to keep the immune system healthy, and should be a given in the sun anyway.

• I never leave my windows open past 5pm, because pollen is high in the evenings and I don't want it to get in to the house and disturb my sleep. Also, Alison Cullen says to "Undress in the bathroom, not the bedroom, so the pollen from clothes doesn't float around the bedroom."

• Visit your doctor. If self-management isn't working, don't be afraid to go and ask for some professional help. They may prescribe something or even refer you to an allergist. It was the best thing I ever did.

- Vicki Notaro

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