15 ways to avoid hay fever

Avoid the seasonal scratching, sneezing and wheezing by managing your exposure and reaction to the dreaded pollen

Hay fever is not a trivial condition

Vicki Notaro

For those of us affected by pollen, summer can be a very tricky time of year. Hay fever, or an allergy to grass, tree or plant pollen, can strike at any time and leave us scratching, sneezing, feeling congested and suffering from streaming eyes. And if it's bad for grown ups, it can be even more confusing for kids, and difficult to watch them suffer.

"Hay fever is not a trivial condition," says Sharon Cosgrove, the CEO of the Asthma Society of Ireland. "Pollen is a significant trigger for many asthma patients and it is important to have a plan in place to manage both asthma and allergies."

However, there are some things you can do to help prevent the dreaded seasonal itch - and to ease symptoms when they strike without having to ransack the pharmacy.

1 You can develop a pollen allergy at any age

There are many mistaken beliefs out there about the onset of hay fever, with lots of people assuming that it's a lifelong battle, and you either have it or you don't. Not true. "Symptoms can start at any age above two years old," says Dr Jean Emberlin. "But the onset is usually most likely between about eight and 15 years. Late onset hay fever, in those over 35, seems to be more common now than a few decades ago. The reasons for this are unclear."

"It may be that some individuals only encounter the particular allergen that affects them later in life, but that would only be the case for a minority of sufferers. The exact reason most of those with adult onset hay fever only see their symptoms 'switched on' in adulthood remains a mystery," says Sharon.

So if you're suffering with symptoms - itchy eyes, nose and throat, tiredness and feeling blocked in your nose and sinuses - don't just presume you've caught a summer cold, and try taking an antihistamine tablet to see if things improve.

2 Be extra careful if you have asthma

Some 470,000 people in Ireland have asthma, and 60pc-80pc of these also have hay fever, making the summer months difficult. Hay fever can worsen asthma symptoms, and those with asthma may not recognise the warning signs of an attack, especially when the symptoms of both are so similar, and both may be triggered by pollen.

"The best way to manage any asthma trigger, including pollen, is to have your asthma well-controlled," says Anne Kearney from the Asthma Society. "Take your preventer medication daily as prescribed and make sure you are taking your inhaler properly. Visit your doctor or nurse to put an action plan in place for managing your asthma ad allergies."

3... and other allergies

If you know you're allergic to airborne allergies like dust, or even dander or cat hair, it's likely that you may be affected by pollen too. This is called allergic rhinitis, and has different stages of severity. For some, it's just annoying sneezing, but for others, it can trigger sinusitis and end up making you feel really ill.

"If you know that your rhinitis often turns into sinusitis then you should get in touch with your GP and get advice on the most suitable treatment for you before this happens," says Anne. "It's also worth talking to your pharmacist to see if they can provide some advice on medications in the interim."

Over the counter remedies can help by preventing inflammation in the first place, like nasal sprays and antihistamine tablets. However, if symptoms are severe, you may need a doctor's help.

4 Prepare in advance

Most people make the mistake of waiting until symptoms strike to treat them each year, but that's not a good idea. "Hayfever treatment should be taken regularly and before symptoms begin, as it is more difficult to control symptoms that are already well established." says Sharon.

5 Be consistent with treatment

Don't just stop taking notice of your hay fever when your symptoms have eased. It's no harm to take a daily antihistamine in summer, if that's what your pharmacist has recommended, and topical treatments should continue to maximise their preventative powers. "Only taking medications occasionally on the worst days is much less effective," agrees Sharon.

6 Watch the pollen count

"Fresh air is good for you, so don't stop going outside completely!" says Dr Emberlin. "Just avoid times when the pollen count is at its highest, which for grass pollen is usually first thing in the morning and early evening."

It's always a good idea to keep an eye on the pollen count in your area online, and you can also download the Asthma Coach App with Pollen Tracker from the Asthma Society.

7 Know your own triggers

Different people are allergic to different kinds of pollen - grass, tree or plant -but some have difficulties with all three.

"Keep a diary of your symptoms and their severity," recommends Dr Emberlin. "Note whether your symptoms are worse in certain places, for example near some types of trees, flowering grass or compost heaps."

If your symptoms are severe your doctor may arrange an allergy test for you - usually a skin-prick test or a blood test. "Whatever the pollen culprit is, the treatments for the symptoms will be the same," says Dr Emberlin. "It does help to know  though as then you can avoid the worst of the pollen exposure that makes your symptoms worse."

Other triggers include weather changes, pollen, moulds, dust, air pollutants such as cigarette smoke, aerosols and dry ice, exercise and alcohol - all of which are common at the festivals that dominate an Irish summer. Be aware, and be prepared, especially if you're off camping and partying for a weekend in a forest!

8 Stay on top of housework

The last thing you want to do when you're feeling snotty and itchy is domestic chores, but a squeaky clean and allergen free home can really help with your symptoms. "Vacuum regularly using a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA (high energy particulate air) filter," says Anne. She also recommends dusting with a damp cloth to grab every little particle of pollen.

However, Dr Emberlin also notes that pollen can stick to wet fabrics. "Don't hang clothes outside on high pollen count days because this allows pollen to cling to the cloth. Instead, hang it indoors or use your clothes dryer."

9 Be careful with your pets

If your dog is rolling around in the field or garden, and then making a beeline for your bed, you could suffer as a result. "Furry pets can carry a lot of pollen in their coats," explains Dr Emberlin. "If possible, get someone who doesn't have hay fever to brush them or wipe them over with a damp towel after they have been outdoors."

Or just keep the critters away from your sleeping environment - think about how many times you breathe in and out during the night, and the amount of pollen particles that could be on your sheets and in the air.

10 Watch your diet

It's tempting to comfort-eat junk food when you have cold-like symptoms, but wallowing won't do you any good! It's important to keep your immune system in tip-top condition when suffering, to avoid you catching a virus or developing an infection. Therefore, you should be eating well throughout hay fever season.

Dr Emberlin recommends noting how you feel after you eat too. "Dairy food can increase mucous secretion, for example."

So if you feel worse after cheese or milk, speak to your doctor about it.

11 Protect yourself

Summer is the time to be outdoors, so you can't sit inside missing out on all the fun. Instead, protect yourself. Wear sunglasses (Dr Emberlin recommends the wrap-around style) or a peaked hat to keep your eyes shaded, and don't rub your eyes or nose, no matter how bad they itch.

Avoid snoozing with your head on the grass, and wash your hands if you've been in contact with any flora. Every little helps.

12 Try topical treatments

"Smear petroleum jelly inside your nostrils to help stop pollen spores from settling in the lining of your nose," says Anne.

A dab of Vaseline could go a long way to helping you feel more comfortable, so give it a try. Eye drops like Opticrom can soothe an itch better than water, and flush out any offending particles of pollen, while a nasal spray will soothe inflamed nostrils and help you breathe a little easier. There are over-the-counter brands available, but a doctor can recommend a prescription strength if necessary.

13 Avoid smoky environments and alcohol

"Alcohol in excess will suppress the immune system and can make symptoms worse, while air pollution  especially from vehicles and cigarette smoke can cause  irritation to the airways and eyes."

Not what one wants to hear when heading off for a weekend of festival fun, or on a family camping holiday, but unfortunately, it's a fact. Be mindful of your environment, and realise that smoking and drinking definitely won't help the condition.

14Be careful at night

Hay fever symptoms are often worse at night. "During the day, pollen concentrations are diluted by convection currents," explains Dr Emberlin. "At night time, these subside and pollen falls to near ground level increasing the concentrations, and therefore causing an  increase in symptoms."

The Asthma Society recommend showering and rinsing your hair before bed, and changing your clothes if you've been outside before sitting down for the evening. It might be annoying to have to think of such things, but they can have a marked impact on your suffering.

15 Try to stay calm

Wheezing, itching and a stuffy head can be really stressful. Following the above tips will undoubtedly help, but it's important to stay calm, try to get a good night's sleep and look after yourself.

"Stress and dehydration can make symptoms worse," enthuses Dr Emberlin. Remember to consult your pharmacist or GP if you're really worried, and keep up to date with pollen counts in order to know what you're dealing with.