HAVE you noticed you’ve been sneezing more lately… or perhaps you’ve got an itchy throat and running eyes?
Hay fever season is well under way and for the millions of British sufferers it’s easy to blame the soaring pollen levels at the moment.
But for those who don’t think they are allergic to pollen, you might be questioning why you’ve got the sniffles all of a sudden.
Well, just because you’ve never suffered with hay fever symptoms before doesn’t mean you’re totally immune to developing them.
In fact, earlier this year, experts predicted one million people in the UK will develop an allergy to pollen this summer.
They put it down to a so-called pollen bomb caused by a condensed flowering season where plants burst into life at the same time.
That happens when there is a long winter quickly followed by a very warm, wet spring.
It is possible at any point in life to develop an allergy to something previously tolerated
This concentration of several different types of pollen – which ordinarily would have occurred sequentially over a longer time – is thought to have triggered allergic reactions in people who had never suffered with hay fever before.
It also led to more severe symptoms in people with long standing hay fever.
Experts say you can get hay fever at any age and it’s more common in boys than girls – though in adults, men and women are equally affected.
A spokesperson from Allergy UK said: “It is possible at any point in life to develop an allergy to something previously tolerated.”
But for those convinced it’s not hay fever, then maybe you’re putting it down to a summer cold, which – in case you were wondering – is exactly the same as the one you might catch during the winter.
Hay fever and colds are easy to confuse because they share the clinical category of rhinitis, which means irritation and inflammation of the nasal cavity.
The mechanisms share some similarities too, but there are some key differences in symptoms – notably, itchiness and the colour of your snot.
Prof Reena Ghildyal, of the University of Canberra, told The Conversation: “The common cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract, usually caused by rhinoviruses.
“Colds spread easily from one person to the other via coughing, sneezing and touching infected surfaces.
Beat the pollen bomb: 6 ways to treat hay fever
There’s currently no cure for hay fever, but most people are able to relieve symptoms with treatment – to a certain extent.
1. Avoid pollen
The most effective way to control hay fever is to avoid exposure to pollen.
But this is easier said than done – especially during the summer months when you want to spend more time outdoors.
Allergy UK say the best way to do this is to keep windows and doors closed when inside – especially early in the morning and evening when the pollen count is highest.
They also advise avoiding peak pollen times and wearing wraparound sunglasses and a hat to prevent pollen getting onto the face and in the eyes.
You should also avoid drying clothes on an outdoor washing line and shower when you get indoors to remove pollen from your skin and hair.
Antihistamines treat hay fever by blocking the action of the chemical histamine, which the body releases when it thinks it’s under attack from an allergen. This stops the symptoms of the allergic reaction.
Antihistamines are usually effective at treating itching, sneezing and watery eyes, but they may not help with clearing a blocked nose.
They’re available in tablet form and also as nasal sprays and eye drops.
Corticosteroids (steroids) are used to treat hay fever because they have an anti-inflammatory effect.
When pollen triggers your allergic reaction, the inside of your nose becomes inflamed.
Corticosteroids can reduce the inflammation and prevent the symptoms of hay fever.
They are better at preventing and relieving nasal symptoms including sneezing and congestion.
For those requiring rapid short-term relief from severe symptoms, for example if you have an exam or driving test, a GP may prescribe a course of tablets.
4. Nasal sprays and eye drops
Nasal decongestants, in the form of a spray, can reduce the swelling in the blood vessels in your nose, which opens your nasal passage and makes breathing easier.
Eye drops can treat red, itchy and watery eyes as they usually contain antihistamine to reduce the inflammation.
Both nasal sprays and eye drops are available from a pharmacist.
5. Natural remedies
Many people are turning towards natural remedies rather than conventional medicine to alleviate symptoms.
Some try inhaling steam to clear congestion while others suggest drinking nettle tea – an anti-inflammatory.
A new natural approach is Breaze Vapour Oil, which can be inhaled from a tissue to ease nasal itching, interrupt sneezing fits and clear a stuffy nose.
For those with persistent hay fever symptoms, a GP may refer you for immunotherapy treatment.
This involves gradually introducing you to small amounts of the allergen, such as pollen, and monitoring your allergic reaction in a controlled environment.
“Hay fever, on the other hand, can’t spread from person to person. It’s an allergic response to an environmental irritant such as pollen or dust.
“The nasal cavity contains cells that recognise foreign substances such as bugs and pollen.
“Once the body detects a bug or irritant, it activates an army of T cells that hunt down and destroy the substance. This is known as an immune response.
“In hay fever, the irritant triggers the same immune cells as viruses. But it also causes the release of IgE antibodies and histamines to produce an ongoing blocked nose, impaired sense of smell, and nasal inflammation.”
How you can tell the difference
Both hay fever and the common cold causes sneezing, runny or stuffy nose and coughing.
One of the key differences is the colour of the nasal discharge – also known as snot, says Prof Ghildyal.
She said: “It’s more likely to be a yellowish green colour in colds, while in hay fever, it’s clear.
“Facial itchiness – especially around the eyes or throat – is a symptom typically only seen with hay fever.
“If someone is allergic to a seasonal environmental trigger such as pollen, their symptoms may be restricted to particular seasons of the year.
“But if you’re allergic to dust or smoke, symptoms may last all year long.
“Hay fever, like asthma, is an allergic disease and can sometimes cause similar symptoms, such as coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath.
MORE ON HAY FEVER
“A sore throat, on the other hand, is generally a precursor to cold.
“If you have cold-like symptoms and a sore throat or have had one in the last few days, your condition is more likely to be the common cold.”
How are they treated?
An allergy test, using a skin prick or blood test, for allergen-specific IgE could inform you of the specific irritants that trigger your condition.
These tests can be organised through your GP or pharmacist.
Oral antihistamines are effective in hay fever patients with mild to moderate disease, particularly in those whose main symptoms are palatal itch, sneezing, rhinorrhoea, or eye symptoms hay fever treatments.
Generally, treatment isn’t necessary for a cold but over-the-counter medications such as paracetamol and ibuprofen can help relieve some of the symptoms.
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