The lowdown on hay fever
As the season is changing, you may notice that at times, your nose feels congested, you’re sneezing a lot more than usual and you have the sniffles. This might be a sign that you have what is commonly known as “hay fever,” which is a type of allergy to pollen in the air.
What is pollen?
To understand what a pollen allergy is, it is important to understand what pollen is and how it triggers an allergic reaction. Pollen is a fine, yellow powdery substance that is found on trees, flowers, grasses and other types of plants. It is the plant version of a male gamete or sperm cell. The purpose of pollen is to be picked up by the wind and carried to surrounding plants in order to fertilize them. Pollen is produced in a seasonal nature, with its highest levels of production being in spring, and less so in summer, but each species of plant has its own pollination period where it produces its pollen. Pollen is an extremely important part of agriculture and plant growth, but unfortunately bodes bad news for people with seasonal allergies since it is an allergen.
Why do people get pollen allergies?
Allergies are disorders of the immune system that result in symptoms in people who are sensitized to a specific allergen. An allergen, like pollen, is a substance that triggers an immune response, producing symptoms like a runny nose or itchy eyes. Pollen is the most common allergen, and therefore, hay fever is the most common allergy. The medical term for pollen allergy is allergic rhinitis. There are a host of factors that contribute to the development of an allergic condition. These can be split into host factors or environmental factors.
The host factors include genetic predisposition to getting allergic reactions. People are more likely to get allergies if they have a first-degree family member with allergies. Allergies also come in a triad known as the “atopy triad” which includes asthma, allergic rhinitis and eczema. People with one allergy is more likely to have one of the other two. The environmental factors include being in an environment that has a specific allergen that triggers a response in a host.
While most allergies develop in the first two decades of life, a pollen allergy can develop at any stage in one’s life. As you are exposed to different allergens, you may become sensitized to them.
How do I know I have a pollen allergy?
You may be reading this and wondering whether what you are experiencing at the same time every year may be a pollen allergy. There are a few signs and symptoms that one can note which may mean that you have a pollen allergy. These symptoms include:
- nasal congestion
- runny nose
- itchy, watery eyes
- scratchy throat
- cough from post-nasal drip
If you experience any of these symptoms, it is advisable to go to an allergy specialist doctor. Here they can do a series of skin prick tests, where they take a small amount of known plant allergens and poke a small amount into the skin. The benefit of this is that it can help to identify a specific pollen allergen that causes the allergic rhinitis. This can help to guide management for treating the allergy.
You have a pollen allergy, now what?
There isn’t a cure to treat pollen allergies or any other allergies. The only two options are prevention and symptom control. Prevention strategies include tips and tricks to reduce the amount of pollen that you inhale. These include:
- Having your air conditioner on instead of open doors and windows. Try to keep doors and windows closed as much as possible to prevent pollen from entering the home. Fit your air conditioner with a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) which humidifies the air and kills pollen spores.
- When coming back home, remove clothes and shoes immediately and push them in the wash. Take a shower or bath to wash away pollen particles which cling to hair and skin and can trigger allergic symptoms during your sleep.
- Avoid going outdoors during peak pollen seasons. Make sure to check local daily pollen counts to know when pollen levels are predicted to be the highest.
- Try to keep pets indoors during pollen season as they have thick fur coats which can house millions of pollen particles. If they do go outside, try to keep them away from running in bushes, grass or fields.
Despite best efforts, sometimes avoiding pollen is impossible, at which point, one starts developing the annoying symptoms that can cause quite a lot of irritation, keep one from a restful night’s sleep and break concentration. This is where symptoms relief comes in. Home remedies include lemon and honey tea to sooth the throat and nasal irrigation with saltwater to clear nasal congestion. Other options include visiting your health provider for medication to alleviate some of the symptoms.
If you would like to know more about pollen allergies, would like to get a skin test, or require medication for symptom relief, it is best to visit your medical practitioner.
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