Most of us are looking forward to summer. But for 13 million Brits, the warmer months herald the beginning of the dreaded hay fever season.
Hay fever affects around one in five of us, and can be a miserable affair.
While others are out enjoying the weather, you’re battling with streaming, itchy eyes and a running nose, not to mention the endless sneezing.
Hay fever is sparked by pollen triggering the body’s immune response – the symptoms are the body’s way of trying to expel the irritant.
Most people are sensitive to seasonal allergens, however some people have allergic rhinitis, which means they have hay fever all year round.
Nikki Biddiss, medical herbalist at Napiers in Glasgow, said: “When the season begins all depends what you’re actually allergic to.
“Hay fever – or seasonal allergic rhinitis – is an allergy to pollen, mould or fungal spores.
“Pollen is the plant’s attempt at reproduction, so it’s produced in mass quantities, filling the surrounding air.
“We are not the targeted recipient of the pollen, but we inhale it through our mouths and noses.
“Trees can release their pollen as early as January, through to April, grasses pollinate over the summer months and many plants continue to pollinate through to autumn.
“Fungal spores occur all year round. So if you have multiple allergies, it could be a long season.”
The bad news is that hay fever is on the rise.
In the 1970s, only 10% of the population had it, but these days around 30% of adults and 40% of children are affected.
And if you have recently developed hay fever in your middle ages, you are not alone. Experts from the charity Allergy UK have warned in recent years that the rise in new adult sufferers is so explosive that by 2030 more than 30 million Britons could be suffering allergy symptoms.
Air pollution and global warming sparking longer pollen seasons have been blamed for the increase. But whatever the reason, once your body’s response is triggered it usually lasts the rest of your life.
Nikki says not everyone has the same reaction.
“An over-sensitivity to pollen can run in families, and be linked to asthma or eczema – or there may be environmental factors. For example, children who grew up with smokers or who are exposed to dust mites from an early age are more likely to develop hay fever.”
Hay fever is no trivial matter. It’s linked to poor sleep and decreased cognitive function – and can exacerbate existing medical conditions such as asthma. In fact, figures show 80% of people with asthma will also have hay fever.
“There are over-the-counter drugs available, but also many natural remedies sufferers can try,” Nikki said.
“If this is the route you want to go down, do come and speak to a medical herbalist who could suggest what might be most effective for you.”
The pollen season separates into three main sections: Tree pollen (late March to mid-May), grass pollen (mid-May to July), and weed pollen (June to September.)
Practical steps such as washing your hair and clothes before going to bed and sleeping with windows closed during the summer months will ease symptoms.
It’s not always possible to take medication such as antihistamine for some, especially for pregnant women and those worried about drowsiness.
For those who want to go down the natural route there are plenty of remedies to try.
Eating a diet rich in a plant pigment called quercetin, which dampens down the immune response and has an antihistamine action, can be a useful weapon in the battle against hay fever.
It is also found naturally in certain foods, such as red onions, garlic and broccoli, red apples, cranberries and blueberries.
If watery eyes are causing you grief, try eyebright, a herb hailed as a miracle cure to help clear runny eyes and noses.
It comes in a soothing eye wash or cream, or can be taken as a tea.
This herb is also antihistamine and helps dry up mucous secretions. In other words, it helps to stop you sneezing.
In tea form it’s a nice refreshing and cooling drink.
An antioxidant and antihistamine, chamomile tea also contains flavonoids and acts effectively as an anti-inflammatory agent.
Best taken as a cuppa during the day, chamomile tea can also be used as an eye compress, providing a cooling effect to swollen, red eyes.
There is growing evidence that gut health is linked to the immune system and a recent trial found that bifidobacterium longum relieved sneezing and runny noses.
Lactobacillius taken throughout the season can lower histamine production.
Omega-3 fatty acids
This can help fight the inflammation caused to irritated mucous membranes.
Consuming oily fish three times a week or taking a good supplement is a smart idea. There are plant-based alternatives for vegans and vegetarians.
The jury is still out on this one scientifically, but many people find consuming local honey before and during hay fever season helps acclimatise their bodies to local pollen and helps alleviate symptoms.
As a natural antioxidant, studies have shown Vitamin C to have an antihistamine effect in combatting hay fever – and it also supports the immune system.
You can either take as a supplement, or try to incorporate into your diet.
High levels are found in kiwi fruits, strawberries, melon and citrus fruits, as well as green vegetables such as broccoli and sprouts.
Staying well hydrated is important as fluid is lost through running noses and eyes – and sneezing.
Drink hot or cold, straight from the tap or infused with herbs or fruit.
Seeds and nuts
Nuts and seeds are high in Vitamin E and zinc which can help reduce blocked sinuses.
Nikki Biddiss is based at Napiers, Cresswell Street, Glasgow, telephone 0141 3395859