Bad news for hay fever sufferers – the pollen season is upon us. As trees and shrubs are coming into bud, grasses are growing and the days are getting warmer, for many people this time of year also brings a wealth of dreaded symptoms. Itchy, blocked, runny noses and watery, sore eyes with sneezing and a tickly throat.
Pollen is the very fine powder that plants release into the air during their reproductive cycle. Some people’s immune system reacts to proteins in pollen. When the cells in the lining of their nose, throat and eyes come into contact with it, they release chemicals. Most notably, they release histamines. It is this immune reaction that causes the inflammation, swelling and irritation of the nasal passages, eyes and throat, leading to hay fever symptoms.
Hay fever is really an allergy to grass or hay pollens. However it may also be used to describe allergy to other pollens including tree and weed pollens. Between 15-20% of the Swiss population have a pollen allergy. In about 70% of those, it is an allergy to grass pollens.
Tree pollens are released and become air-borne during spring. Grass pollens release towards the end of spring and into early summer. Whereas weed pollens are released later in the year, during autumn. The pollen count provides a measure of the current amount of pollen circulating in the air. The higher the count for the particular pollen a person is allergic to, the more severe their hay fever symptoms will be on that day.
A person usually starts to show hay fever symptoms during childhood and adolescence and is more likely to develop it if their mother or father are affected. It is possible to grow out of hay fever with age but it is also possible to develop pollen allergy at any time of life.
Treating the Symptoms
The first port of call in terms of symptom relief for hay fever sufferers is usually to visit a pharmacy. There are a whole host of treatments available to buy over-the-counter in different forms including tablets, nasal sprays and eye drops. The main-stay of treatment is usually antihistamines. These block the histamine chemicals released during the immune reaction, or steroids, which help to counteract the inflammation caused. Antihistamines are best avoided during pregnancy and breastfeeding. And steroid nasal sprays can take a few weeks to have full effect, so starting them before the hay fever season could be a good idea. A doctor can prescribe stronger treatments if those available over-the-counter don’t work.
Some other practical things that may help hay fever sufferers are:
- If at all possible, to stay inside and keep windows and doors shut when the pollen counts are high.
- To avoid cutting the lawn and visiting large grassy places.
- To shower and to wash hair after being outdoors.
- When outside, to wear wrap-around sunglasses.
- To apply a small amount of petroleum gel to the openings of the nasal passages to try to ‘trap’ pollen powder.
- To keep car windows closed and fit a pollen filter to the air vents in the car.
Medication and other measures may help to relieve symptoms but they need to be continued throughout the pollen season. If symptoms are particularly bad, an allergy specialist can arrange testing to see exactly which pollens a person is allergic to. They may suggest immunotherapy treatment (also known as desensitization). The idea behind immunotherapy is to allow the body to build up a resistance to the allergic effects of the pollen so that hay fever symptoms are reduced. It does not usually offer a complete cure.
There are different ways to carry out immunotherapy treatment. The first (called subcutaneous immunotherapy) involves injecting a very small quantity of the allergy-inducing pollen under the skin. The second (called sublingual immunotherapy) involves placing a tablet containing the pollen under the tongue. However, immunotherapy treatment needs commitment as it usually continues for 3 to 5 years.
If you are a hay fever sufferer, there is a Swiss website that might be of use to you: www.pollenundallergie.ch. It is available in French, German and Italian and contains information from both the Swiss Allergy Centre and the Federal Office of Meteorology and Climatology (MeteoSwiss), including the current circulating pollen levels in the different regions of Switzerland. There is also information about various smartphone Apps for allergy sufferers. One called “Pollen-News” could be worth a look.
Dr Michelle Wright is a British-trained General Practitioner and Executive Director of HealthFirst, providing dynamic First Aid Training and Health Education in English throughout Switzerland (www.healthfirst.ch). She also has a regular radio show about health on World Radio Switzerland (www.worldradio.ch/healthmatters).