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Why hay fever misery has struck early this year - and what you can do about it

Enjoying the warm spell? Paddling by the sea eating ice-cream? Building sand castles with the kids? Wonderful, isn't it?

However, not everyone's relishing these unseasonably sunny days. Indeed some 20pc of us are miserable.

These are Ireland's hay fever sufferers and they're getting caught like never before. They're about as happy as a Fianna Fail politician reading the Mahon Report.

The mild winter and spring combined with this unusual balmy stretch has triggered an earlier-than-usual pollen surge. Tree pollen and lush grass growth suggest it won't be long before the real assault begins. Mid-May is traditionally the beginning of the grass pollen season in Ireland but I reckon it'll kick in four weeks earlier. By mid-April grass pollen allergy will become a major health issue.

What's the background?

Hay fever is an allergic reaction to (mainly) tree and grass pollens. It's usually a summer problem but this year will start much earlier.

High pollen counts (pollen count measures the amount of pollen in the air over 24 hours) occur on warm, dry and sunny days. Low levels occur on wet, damp and cold days.

Pollen is released in the morning and carried higher into the air by midday. It descends again to 'nose-level' in the late afternoon. Cities and dense urban areas stay warmer longer and hold pollen. With atmospheric pollution from car fumes you can understand why city dwellers suffer more aggressive hay fever than country cousins.

Pollen allergy causes a range of symptoms, including:


•Blocked and runny nose.

•Itchy eyes.

•Cough and wheeze.

•Itchy roof of mouth and back of throat.

•Intense lethargy.

• Flares of asthma and eczema.

It is caused in about 20pc of the population, especially teenagers and young people.

So what are the treatments?

The most effective therapy is an anti-histamine to 'mop-up' excess circulating histamine, the main cause of hay-fever. This is often combined with a steroid nasal spray and anti-allergy eye drops. Successful management focuses on controlling nose blockage. A short course of decongestants gives immediate relief and allows the usual medication to become effective. Ask your pharmacist or GP for advice. When choosing an across-the-counter antihistamine ask for one of the newer 'won't make me drowsy' products.

I've heard all that before. Anything new?

Desensitisation (also called immunotherapy) is now available. Compatible with hay-fever drugs, Desensitisation can prevent and possibly cure allergic disease. Moreover, it blocks worsening of the condition. It works by gradually damping down the body's immune response to pollen. In time it stops over-reaction and allows hay-fever sufferers lead normal live.

However, this must be started some months before the pollen season. So if you're already feeling the effects of pollen too late to seek this particular treatment.

I've just checked the 48-hour forecast. If you suffer, it's likely you'll be stuck indoors.

My advice: don't suffer, do something about it. Your GP or pharmacist has a vast array of good and safe medicines to ease the misery.

Dr Paul Carson, is an allergy expert based at the Slievemore Clinic in Stillorgan