Hay fever sufferers face a really bad summer. Lucy Atkins offers advice.
This summer’s pollen forecast is one of the worst ever, meaning that about one in four of us can expect to slip into a wheezing fug any minute.
Experts say that we are surprisingly inept at managing our symptoms. Many of us do not understand our hay fever triggers and take inappropriate medications. Others throw away money on alternative “remedies” that do not work.
Simply popping a pill when symptoms get out of hand is not the best approach.
“People don’t realise you have to take the right dose at the right time in order to keep levels of the drug high in your system,” says Maureen Jenkins, allergy nurse and spokeswoman for Allergy UK.
“Otherwise it just won’t work.”
Antihistamine nasal sprays can stop your nose running, nasal steroid sprays can unbung you and sprays containing a drug called sodium cromoglicate, a “mast cell stabiliser”, can stop white blood cells from releasing histamine, which causes the sneezing and itching.
But Jenkins says that “many people have no idea how to use these sprays properly.” It is no good just stuffing the product up your nose – a good spraying technique is vital (see below). It is also important to follow dosage instructions.
The sodium cromoglicate spray, for instance, will only work if you start to use it two weeks before your allergy begins, then keep using it four times a day. Many other medications work best if you start to use them before your allergies kick in, allowing the drug to build up in your system. To do this you have to know your triggers.
Though there are many pollen allergens, birch and grass are the most common. These two are usually released in different months, but experts say that this summer, perhaps because of climate change, they are likely to overlap. According to the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, more than 5million of us could be taking inappropriate medicines because we have misdiagnosed our allergies.
Talking to your pharmacist before buying medicines is the first step to a sniffle-free summer. In addition, Allergy UK has just started an “accredited pharmacy allergy screening service” in association with the National Pharmacy Association. At these centres Allergy UK-trained pharmacists can diagnose triggers then recommend the right over-the-counter medications for your specific allergy type.
They can also refer you to a GP with details of the nearest appropriate allergy specialist. GPs are a good source of help if you are a severe sufferer. Several effective antihistamines can be obtained only on prescription and some people may be suitable for a newly developed kind of immunotherapy, where you either dissolve tablets under the tongue or have regular injections.
Those who want to avoid medication may turn to anything from fish oils to Reishi mushrooms as miracle hay fever cures. But there is no clinical evidence that nutritional supplements or dietary changes work on hay fever symptoms (although the herb butterbur has shown promise in clinical trials).
Acupuncture has had mixed success in trials. Daniel Maxwell of the British Acupuncture Council, says: “It’s great for hay fever because of the significant effect it has on modulating the immune system.”
Homeopathic treatments have also shown some promising clinical results, though more trials are needed. In other words, although you can’t avoid this year’s pollen onslaught, you may be more empowered than you think to defend yourself against it.