How to deal with hay fever

Hay fever is no joke for sufferers when pollen levels are high. Picture: iStock

It may be difficult to tell whether you have common cold or hay fever since the signs and symptoms can be similar.

Hay fever is an illness that causes cold-like signs and symptoms, such as a runny nose, itchy eyes, congestion, sneezing, and headache and sinus pressure.

But unlike a cold, hay fever is not caused by a virus. Hay fever is caused by an allergic response to outdoor or indoor allergens, such as pollen, dust mites or tiny flecks of skin and saliva shed by cats, dogs and other animals with fur or feathers.

It can affect your performance at work or school and generally interfere with your life. To manage one has to learn to avoid triggers and find the right  treatment.

If you have hay fever, the best thing to do is to lessen your exposure to the allergens that cause your symptoms. Take allergy medications before you’re exposed to allergens, as directed by your doctor.

Symptoms

Hay fever signs and symptoms can include:

  • Runny nose and nasal congestion
  • Watery, itchy, red eyes
  • Sneezing
  • Cough
  • Itchy nose, roof of mouth or throat
  • Swollen, blue-coloured skin under the eyes
  • Postnasal drip
  • Fatigue

Signs and symptoms may start or worsen at a particular time of year.

Picture: iStock

Triggers include:

• Tree pollen, which is common in early spring.

• Grass pollen, which is common in late spring and summer.

• Ragweed pollen, which is common in fall.

• Dust mites, cockroaches and dander from pets can occur year-round (perennial). Symptoms to indoor allergens might worsen in winter, when houses are closed up.

• Spoors from indoor and outdoor fungi and moulds are considered both seasonal and perennial.

It may be difficult to tell whether you have common cold or hay fever since the signs and symptoms can be similar. Hay fever normally presents with runny nose with thin, watery discharge and no fever, it begins immediately after exposure to allergens and lasts for as long as you are exposed to allergens.

Common cold on the other hand presents with a runny nose with watery or thick yellow discharge, body aches, low-grade fever, it starts 1-3 days after exposure to a cold virus and lasts 3-7 days.

Causes

When you have hay fever, your immune system identifies a harmless airborne substance as harmful. Your immune system then produces antibodies to this harmless substance.

The next time you come in contact with the substance, these antibodies signal your immune system to release chemicals such as histamine into your bloodstream, which cause a severe reaction that leads to the signs and symptoms of hay fever.

The following factors can increase your risk of developing hay fever:

• Exposure to secondary cigarette smoke in first year of life

• Having other allergies or asthma

• Having atopic dermatitis (eczema)

• Having a blood relative (such as a parent or sibling) with allergies or asthma

• Living or working in an environment that constantly exposes you to allergens — such as animal dander.

Picture: iStock

Complications

• Hay fever and the symptoms can lead to the following complications:

• Reduced quality of life. Hay fever can interfere with your enjoyment of activities and cause you to be less productive.

• Poor sleep/Insomnia. The symptom scan keep you awake or make it hard to stay asleep, which can lead to fatigue and a general feeling of being unwell.

• Worsening asthma. Hay fever can worsen signs and symptoms of asthma, such as coughing and wheezing.

• Sinusitis. Prolonged sinus congestion due to hay fever may increase your susceptibility to sinusitis — an infection or inflammation of the membrane that lines the sinuses.

• Ear infection. In children, hay fever often is a factor in middle ear infection (otitis media).

Diagnosis

Consult your doctor who will then take a full medical and exposure history, perform a physical examination, and possibly recommend one or both of the following tests:

• Skin prick test. You’re watched for an allergic reaction after small amounts of material that can trigger allergies are pricked into the skin of your arm or upper back. If you’re allergic, you develop a raised bump (hive) at the site of that allergen.

• Allergy blood test. A blood sample is sent to a lab to measure your immune system’s response to a specific allergen.

Also called the radioallergosorbent test (Rast), this test measures the amount of allergy-causing antibodies that are found in your bloodstream, known as immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies.

Treatment

It’s best to limit your exposure to substances that cause your hay fever as much as possible. If your hay fever isn’t too severe, over-the-counter medications may be enough to relieve symptoms.

For worse symptoms, you may need prescription medications. Many people get the best relief from a combination of allergy medications.

The doctor might need to try a few before you find what works best.

Picture: iStock

Prevention

It’s not possible to completely avoid allergens, but you can reduce your symptoms by limiting your exposure to them. If you know what you’re allergic to, you can avoid your triggers.

To avoid pollen or moulds

  • Close doors and windows during pollen season. Don’t hang laundry outside — pollen can stick to sheets and towels.
  • Avoid outdoor activity in the early morning, when pollen counts are highest.
  • Use air conditioning in your house and car.
  • Use an allergy-grade filter in your home ventilation system and change it regularly.
  • Stay indoors on dry, windy days.
  • Use a dehumidifier to reduce indoor humidity.
  • Use a high-efficiency particulate air (Hepa) filter in your bedroom and other rooms where you spend a lot of time.
  • Avoid mowing the lawn or raking leaves.
  • Wear a dust mask when cleaning house or gardening.

To avoid dust mites

  • Use allergy-proof covers on mattresses, box springs and pillows.
  • Wash sheets and blankets in water heated to at least 54°C.
  • Use a dehumidifier or air conditioner to reduce the indoor humidity.
  • Vacuum carpets weekly with a vacuum cleaner equipped with a small-particle or Hepa filter.
  • Spray insecticide designed to kill dust mites and approved for indoor use on carpets, furniture and bedding.
  • Consider removing carpeting, especially where you sleep, if you’re sensitive to dust mites.

To avoid cockroaches

  • Block cracks and crevices where roaches can enter.
  • Fix leaky faucets and pipes.
  • Wash dishes and empty garbage daily.
  • Sweep food crumbs from counters and floors.
  • Store food, including pet food, in sealed containers.
  • Consider professional pest extermination.

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