First Published: Southern Health News - September 2008
Spring for many people means a streaming nose, watery eyes and constant sneezing. Hay fever is the common name given to a condition called seasonal allergic rhinitis, which is most often caused by an abnormal sensitivity to airborne pollen.
Flinders Medical Centre’s ex Director of Allergy, and now Royal Adelaide Hospital Director of Allergy Services, Dr Robert Heddle, spoke to Health Talk about hay fever and its treatment.
Hay fever generally peaks during the spring months when airborne pollens are plentiful. However, some people experience sneezing, sniffles, blocked nose and itchy watery eyes all year round.
This condition is called perennial or persistent allergic rhinitis, which is commonly triggered by household allergens including animal hair, fur, dust mites or mould.
How common is hay fever?
Very common! Up to an estimated 30 percent of the population suffer hay fever symptoms on an annual basis.
While many people think of hay fever as a nuisance rather than a medical condition, it can be debilitating. Left untreated, hay fever can have negative effects on mood, learning and work performance. In some cases, the symptoms of hay fever can be so severe that a person can’t sleep or concentrate, and may feel tired or unwell. There is also some evidence that poorly controlled hay fever predisposes to poorer control of asthma in people with the condition.
What are the symptoms of hay fever?
The symptoms of hay fever can vary from person to person. However, people may experience some – or all of the following:
- A runny or stuffy nose
- Impaired smell and taste
- Itchy ears, nose and throat
- Red, itchy or watery eyes
Is there a cure for hay fever?
No. There is not a cure for hay fever. However, there are many effective treatments available to help control the symptoms of the condition.
How does hay fever develop?
Your nose acts as a filter. The tiny hairs and mucus that line the nasal passages trap dust, pollens and other microscopic particles. A person with hay fever is allergic to some of the particles that get trapped in the nose, such as pollen. The immune system fails to discriminate between harmless foreign particles and potentially damaging microbes and responds by launching an ‘attack’ in an attempt to rid the nose of the particles. This attack inflames the nasal passages, causing excess mucous to be produced.
Does diet have an influence on hay fever?
The first step to managing hay fever is to identify the cause of the problem – and then try to remove or avoid the trigger wherever possible.
Suggestions to prevent or limit symptoms of hay fever include:
- Check the pollen count forecast on television or in the newspaper. Try to stay indoors if the count is high, or if the day is particularly warm and windy or stormy
- Avoid exposure to grass cuttings and harvesting
- Regularly splash your eyes with cold water to flush out any pollen
Managing hay fever
In most people diet has only a minor influence on symptoms.
There are a number of sprays and oral medications that may be useful in reducing the symptoms of hay fever.
- Corticosteroid nasal sprays. These sprays are slower to act, but used regularly, are effective in unblocking the nose and relieving sneezing, itchy nose and watery eyes.
- Antihistamine nasal sprays and eye drops. These medications provide rapid relief from sneezing and itching symptoms. However, they are generally less effective at relieving nasal congestion. The older antihistamines have common side effects including tiredness and impaired skills.
- Decongestant nasal sprays or drops. However, they should only be used for a few days. Decongestant tablets are also available but have many side effects and should be avoided by those with vascular, bladder or bowel problems. Immunotherapy (desensitisation) is the closest thing to a cure for hay fever and is the only treatment shown to change the natural history of the disorder. It is however a long term treatment, slow to work and relatively expensive in terms of time and money.