It’s that time of year again, when eyes begin to water and noses start to itch. If you or your child are one of the many hay fever sufferers, understanding a little more about its triggers and treatments could make life a lot more pleasant this spring.

What causes hay fever?

Hay fever is caused when the body’s immune system makes an allergy antibody to a normal substance such as pollen, house dust mites, pets or moulds (allergens). Exposure to these allergens then causes the release of chemicals from cells in the nasal passages airways, and eyes. This is what creates the irritation and inflammation to the lining of the eyes, nose and throat that we all know as hay fever.

What are the symptoms of hay fever?

Hay fever symptoms can often be confused with a common cold, with symptoms such as sneezing and an itchy, runny nose. The subsequent inflammation causes a stuffy nose and sinus congestion, which can make sleeping difficult and can cause headaches.

If you’re not sure it’s hay fever, look out for symptoms such as irritation of the roof of the mouth, deep in the ears and in the back of the throat, and itchy eyes that may water and become swollen, red and sore (allergic conjunctivitis).

Hay fever and asthma

Hay fever sufferers often have asthma or an increased risk of developing it. Inflammation in the nose often affects the rest of the airways that lead to the lungs. However, for those suffering with both, treating the hay fever effectively can mean less severe asthma and fewer A&E and hospital admissions.

Why do people get hay fever at different times of the year?

Hay fever is a bit of a blanket term and is used to describe sensitivity to a variety of different allergens. The correct term you may hear from your doctor is ‘allergic rhinitis’.

Grass pollen is the most common and affects sufferers when grass pollen is released, usually late April-July.

Allergies to tree, grass, weed pollens and mould spores, can mean a more prolonged hay fever season.

If you are unlucky enough to react to indoor allergens such as house dust mites, pets and indoor moulds, you can experience the symptoms all year round.

How can I treat my hay fever?

There are a range of products available over-the-counter or prescribed by a GP, but how do you know which is right for you? Here is a quick breakdown, but it’s always worth discussing with a pharmacist or GP.

  • Anti-histamine oral tablets suppress histamine release so give quick relief for mild symptoms. They are usually effective at treating itching, sneezing and watery eyes, but might not help a blocked nose.
  • Nasal corticosteroids (steroids) are more effective than antihistamine tablets at preventing and relieving nasal symptoms, like sneezing and congestion. They can also relieve itchy, watery eyes. These nasal sprays or drops are available over-the-counter or prescribed by a GP..
  • Eye drops are available over-the-counter and good for treating redness, itchiness and watering – however, some may cause a stinging or burning feeling in your eyes.

For very severe cases, there are other treatments available – see a GP who can discuss your options and provide prescriptions.

* If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, always check with your pharmacist before using over-the-counter medicines.

* For asthmatics, speak to a GP as hay fever can often make asthma symptoms worse.

Can I prevent hay fever?

It is pretty hard to completely avoid pollen or spores, but there are some measures you can take to ease the severity of symptoms…

  • Avoid cutting grass, grassy areas and camping.
  • Wear wraparound sunglasses to stop pollen getting in the eyes when outdoors.
  • Change clothes and take a shower after being outdoors to remove any pollen on the body.
  • Try to stay indoors when the pollen count is high (over 50 grains of pollen per cubic metre).
  • Do not keep fresh flowers in the house.
  • Vacuum regularly, using a machine with a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter.
  • Damp dust regularly. Dusting with a wet cloth, rather than a dry one, will collect the dust and stop any pollen from being spread around.
  • Keep pets out of the house during the hay fever season. If your pet does come indoors, wash it regularly to remove any pollen from its fur.
  • Do not smoke or let other people smoke in your house. Breathing in smoke irritates the lining of the nose, eyes, throat and airways, and can make symptoms worse.
  • Keep car windows closed and you can buy a pollen filter for the air vents in your car.

Hay fever is often dismissed as a trivial problem, but if you or a family member is a sufferer, you know it can disturb sleep, impair daytime concentration and the ability to carry out everyday activities.

The good news is, there are ways to minimise the symptoms. Speak to a pharmacist, speak to a GP, try the preventative measures I’ve mentioned – there are many options available beyond taking off-the-shelf hay fever tablets.

Dr Anshumen Bhagat

Dr Bhagat is a GP with 15 years experience, a principle in a North London medical centre and the Chief Medical Officer and Founder of GPDQ, the UK’s first on-demand app for GP home visits.