A reported shortage of some hay fever medicine comes in the middle of pollen season. Don’t panic – for a start, stress is thought to exacerbate allergy symptoms. In any case, the active ingredient in short supply, chlorphenamine maleate, found in brands including Piriton and Hayleve, can make you drowsy – and there are lots of other antihistamine medications available. “For anyone over two years old, you would recommend non-sedating antihistamines anyway,” says Margaret Kelman, a specialist allergy nurse and spokesperson for Allergy UK. Here’s what else should help get you through the season.
Take the right remedies
Kelman recommends non-sedating antihistamines for “mild to moderate hay fever [to treat] the immediate itchy, watery, runny nose and itchy, watery eyes”. Eye drops containing sodium chromoglicate or antihistamines can help. If you have a stuffy, congested nose “you would probably need a corticosteroid nasal spray. That’s because there’s a different kind of immune mechanism going on that causes that, and the spray will reduce the inflammation in the nose.” You should speak to your GP first, says Kelman.
Locally produced honey has been considered a treatment and the theory seems sensible – that honey can contain pollen, picked by up bees as they collect nectar, so by eating it you can desensitise yourself to it – but there is no evidence it works. Any small amount of pollen in honey comes from flowers, not grasses and trees, which are the main hay fever culprits. There are other supplements and gadgets – including light-therapy devices that can be inserted into the nasal passages to treat inflammation – which claim to reduce symptoms but there is little evidence for them.
“Corticosteroid nasal sprays need a couple of weeks to start working,” says Kelman. “Also it’s a good idea to get yourself into the routine of taking anti-histamines.” Worcester University has a pollen calendar so you can start planning.
Know your pollen
Most hay fever is caused by grass or tree pollen. If you suffer in spring, you’re probably allergic to tree pollen; in later months, it is probably caused by grass pollen. Of course their seasons overlap, and you can be allergic to both, as well as to weed pollens – often from nettle and mugwort – which are around at the same time, so it can be miserable. Generally though, says Kelman, “if you know when your pollen seasons are, you can start pre-dosing a couple of weeks before”.
The grass pollen season is starting earlier than average, says Dr Beverley Adams-Groom, a senior palynologist and pollen forecaster at Worcester University’s School of Science and Environment, “with the first high day expected in the south possibly next week, if the weather is warm and dry”. This year, the grass pollen season is likely to be average, she says, “although it all depends on the June weather. If June is wet, then the season will be milder.”
Seek specialist help
If you have severe hay fever, your GP may refer you to an allergy consultant. For the small number of people who don’t benefit from antihistamines and nasal steroids, and whose hay fever is affecting their quality of life, immunotherapy can work. Drops or tablets containing doses of grass or tree pollen, placed under the patient’s tongue daily or administered by monthly injections, “trick the immune system into thinking [the pollen is] OK, and turn off the allergic response and so turn off the hay fever. Some people will use it all year round, other people will use it in the month before their hay fever starts, and then through the season,” says Graham Roberts, who is a professor of paediatric allergy at Southampton University, and runs an allergy clinic. Researchers are working on pre-season treatments that will continue to work throughout but currently “we’re nowhere near that point”, says Roberts.
Check the pollen forecast
The Met Office has a pollen forecast, and on days of a high pollen count “you know you need to take extra precautions during the day”, says Kelman. This means making sure you have medication with you, including inhalers if you also have asthma. On high-count days, keep house and car windows closed, and don’t dry clothes or bed linen outside.
Take steps to avoid pollen – and pollution
If you can, shift your life around the risk. On high count days, grass pollen is worse in early morning and late afternoon into evening, but in warm parts of the southern UK it can continue all night. In tree pollen season, evenings are less of a problem. Choose a trip to the beach over a day in the park and, if possible, stay out of cities because pollution exacerbates hay fever. “People wonder why they have bad hay fever in big cities because there’s not as much grass,” says Roberts. “But pollution irritates your nose, lungs and eyes so the pollen has a much bigger impact on you. Pollution and pollen together can worsen the symptoms.”
Block as much pollen as you can
A hat with a brim and sunglasses can reduce the amount of pollen “getting into your face and on your hair”, says Kelman. A smear of balm such as Vaseline around the nose and eyes can help trap it. Wearing a mask can also help. “We’ve become familiar with masks, and they’ve been found to be quite effective at reducing the pollen particles that we breathe in,” says Kelman. “A simple cloth mask will act as a partial barrier.” A mask also warms the air we’re breathing “so that makes our airways less reactive”.
To avoid bringing pollen into the house, Kelman recommends taking off outer layers of clothing when you come in. “If you haven’t been wearing a hat, then it’s a good idea, when you’ve come back in after a day out, to get in the shower and wash your hair, especially if your symptoms are really bad, and especially before going to bed.” You can rinse your nasal passages and eyes with saline solutions from pharmacies, too. Pets can bring pollen inside – and they can suffer from hay fever too. Wipe cats and dogs down with a damp cloth. “Grass and tree pollen are really fine pollens, [so] you might not necessarily see them, but they can be carried on their fur,” says Kelman.