Hay fever sufferers breathe a sigh of relief

As summer ends, many hay fever sufferers will literally breathe a sigh of relief as pollen levels fall away. Hay fever is probably one of the better known allergies, but the range of conditions in this category is extensive. Allergy is a multi-organ disease, affecting approximately one in three of the population in the UK at some time in their lives. Each year the numbers are increasing by 5% with as many as half of all those affected being children. Allergic conditions take on many forms and can vary in severity from the mildest hay fever to life threatening anaphylaxis.

Hay fever has its roots in a condition called Rhinitis, which results in an inflammation of the nose, eyes or sinuses. Typical symptoms might include sneezing, a runny or blocked nose and itching. Rhinitis can have several causes, such as infection or a reaction to medication, but often it is as a result of an allergy, in which case it is called allergic rhinitis. Allergic rhinitis is caused when the body makes an allergic antibody to combat an allergen such as pollen, house dust mites, cat, dog or moulds. In people sensitive to allergens, exposure causes the release of chemicals from cells in the nasal passages, eyes or airways. This results in inflammation and irritation to the lining of the eyes, nose and throat, hence the symptoms of hay fever.

Grass pollen is the most common allergen and affects sufferers at specific times of the year when it is released. However, some people become allergic to tree or weed and shrub pollens, and will therefore be affected at different times of the year. Alarmingly for hay fever sufferers, some experts now believe that global warming will make the problem worse, as warmer temperatures lead to increased periods where plant pollen is produced. Reports from the UK, Canada, Australia, and the United States echo this. In Canada, the season in which ragweed (a significant cause of hay fever) flowers and spreads it pollen in the air has increased by 27 days. Allergy specialists at the Rutgers Centre of Environmental Prediction have issued similar warnings to New Jersey residents because of an alarming increase in ragweed pollen and airborne mould spores.

In other words, it really is a global problem. Hay fever is a modern condition and it was virtually unknown before 1800. The first case to be described medically was in 1819 but the causes were not identified until 1873. Incidence rose steadily during the 19th century in the Western world. Some experts believe that chemical pollutants may be involved, such as diesel fumes, for instance, which appear to sensitise people to pollens. Young people are the worst affected. In the UK, in 1965, around 12 per cent of 12 to 14-year-olds had the condition. Today in the UK, nearly 36 per cent are affected. The figure in the wider population is estimated at between 15 and 25 per cent, with rates doubling since 1965. Debbie Purser, CEO at April International UK, specialist expatriate private health insurance providers comments, “Rhinitis is often regarded as a trivial problem but studies have shown that it severely affects people's quality of life. It disturbs sleep, impairs daytime concentration and the ability to carry out tasks, causes people to miss work or school, and has been shown to affect children’s school exam results. Avoidance of the causes of an allergen is difficult for people with an allergy to substances in the air, such as pollen. However, some simple measures can be used to help people with hay fever. Monitor pollen forecasts daily and stay indoors wherever possible when the count is high (generally on warmer, dry days). Rain washes pollen from the air so counts should be lower on cooler, wet days, keep windows closed when indoors and overnight whilst you are sleeping. This is most important in the early mornings, when pollen is being released, and in the evening when the air cools and pollens that have been carried up into the air begin to fall to ground level again. If you suffer symptoms indoors, a good air filter should help. Choose one that is proven to trap even small particles