'It's often trivialised, but hay fever can be incredibly debilitating' - How to beat your allergies
With pollen reaching its highest possible peaks this week, Maria Lally finds out how allergies can affect us later in life - and how to beat them
If you're in your 40s and putting that lingering sniffle or sore throat down to a summer cold, you could be one of a growing number of first-time adult hay-fever sufferers.
"It's becoming increasingly typical to develop hay fever later in life," says Professor Adam Fox, a consultant allergist who was Clinical Lead of Allergy at Guy's & St Thomas' Hospital in London for eight years. According to the British medical charity Allergy UK, there has been a significant rise in people developing it later in life and by 2030, the number of sufferers is estimated to rise from a quarter of the population to almost half.
Currently, one in five Irish people are sufferers. And as they are only too miserably aware, symptoms of hay fever - or allergic rhinitis to give it its proper name - include incessant sneezing, a blocked or runny nose, red eyes, headaches, blocked sinuses, shortness of breath, tiredness and insomnia.
"It's often trivialised or seen as nothing worse than a cold, but hay fever can be incredibly debilitating," says Professor Fox. "The impact of hay fever on a person's life can be quite significant and leave you feeling utterly wretched at work and home. One study even found its effects on your reflexes are the same as being over the blood alcohol limit for driving.
"Another study has discovered children taking exams in the summer, which is in the middle of the grass pollen season, achieve significantly lower scores than when they take exams in the lead up to Christmas, which is outside the pollen season altogether. That's pretty indicative of its impact."
So why are there more midlife sneezers than ever before?
"Across all ages, we know this year is a particularly bad year for hay fever," says Professor Stephen Durham, a Professor of Allergy and Respiratory Medicine at Imperial College London.
"Tree pollen season typically runs from March to mid May. However, this year has seen a later than usual surge of tree pollen thanks to an unseasonally cold spring which delayed germination. Then we suddenly get this spate of warm weather, along with late germination and pollen release, so it is all coming at once."
"This would indeed appear to be a real phenomena, however it has not as yet been formally investigated. Sensitisation, or allergy, to the usually harmless grass pollen protein can of course occur at any age," says Dr Stephen Lane, a Consultant Respiratory Physician at Tallaght University Hospital and Peamount Healthcare and Professor of Respiratory Medicine at Trinity College Dublin.
"It is important to note that 40pc of the population are 'allergic' on the basis of allergy testing, but of course the prevalence of allergic diseases such as asthma or hay fever is much lower than this. Thus there is a lot of predisposition to allergy in the general population, which can become active at any time.
"Pollen is not a new protein so this would imply an altered immunity in an individual to it. This may relate to the cleaner or more hygienic environment in which we are living when we are younger, in addition to more exposure to antibiotics for example and less exposure to microbes in general. This is known as the 'hygiene hypothesis' and there is evidence that this can predispose to new allergies. Thus patients living in Ireland may enter middle-age with an immune system that predisposes them to developing new allergies such as this."
Dr Marcus Butler, Consultant Respiratory Physician/Lecturer at St Vincent's University Hospital and University College Dublin, adds: "The rise in hay fever is unlikely to be due to genetic factors because of the speed at which it has happened over the past century, which is too quick in evolutionary terms. It is highly likely to reflect a multitude of changes in how we live, including more hygienic ways of life, changes in domestic heating and ventilation, eradication of most intestinal worms, altered diet, less physical activity, increased use of environmental toxins such as triclosan (a pesticide), etc."
One study from the University of Basel in Switzerland found children who grow up with pets are less likely to develop hay fever. And another, from the University of Montreal, found a sterile environment growing up can also increase your risk.
"The more sterile the environment a child lives in, the higher the risk he or she will develop allergies or an immune problem in their lifetime," says Professor Delespesse, who worked on the study. "There is an inverse relationship between the level of hygiene and the incidence of allergies and autoimmune diseases."
Increasing traffic and poor air quality is also a factor, and research from the UK's National Pollen and Aerobiology Research Unit at Worcester University found pollution traps pollen and keeps it at ground level, and well within breathing-in distance of hay fever sufferers.
The good news? You probably won't be a silver sneezer: "You tend to grow out of hay fever in your 60s and 70s," says Professor Fox.
"This is because your immunity begins to decline steadily with age and hay fever is an allergic reaction to pollen and our immune system reacts to this pollen. So as you get older, your immune system loses its 'oompf' and older hay-fever sufferers tend to have an easier time of it, until their hay fever eases off altogether."
How to beat hay fever
- Keep an eye on the pollen levels by checking the online tracker at asthma.ie.
- "Wash your hair every night, which removes pollen," says Prof Fox.
- Take an over-the-counter daily allergy relief tablet containing loratadine, which relieves sneezing, a runny nose and itchy eyes.
- "Wear wrap around sunglasses to act as a barrier to pollen," says Prof Fox.
- Avoid drying clothes outdoors, or shake them outdoors before bringing them in.
- Minimise your contact with pets who have been outdoors and are likely to be carrying pollen.
- Get a pollen filter for your house and car. Try the Dyson Pure Cool Air Purifier, from €449.99, dyson.ie, to remove allergens and pollutants from the air.
- Put Vaseline around your nostrils to trap pollen.
- Spray The Organic Pharmacy Hay Fever Spray (€30 for 30ml, theorganicpharmacy.com) on your tongue when you feel symptoms coming on. It contains chamomile, nettles and elderflower to naturally reduce symptoms of hay fever.
- Stay indoors as much as possible on high pollen days, and keep windows and doors closed. At night, keep windows closed in your bedroom.
- Runny nose and nasal congestion.
- Watery, itchy, red eyes.
- Frequent sneezing.
- Itchy nose, roof of mouth or throat.
- Post-nasal drip.
- For more, see asthma.ie.