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Why more of us are suffering from hay fever than ever before

Posted by
Lizzie Pook
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Summer, glorious summer. Or not, if you’re currently enduring an onslaught of hay fever symptoms. Stylist investigates why more of us are suffering than ever, and how to get some sweet relief…

A burning sun sits proud and pastille-like high above the horizon, sending shafts of amber-hued light splaying over a patchwork of soft green fields. People mill lazily below, drinking crisp cider in the fuggy afternoon heat; fuzzy, joyful, together. Knees are out. Shoulders are bare. Summer dresses float softly around hips and ankles. Balls are kicked. Barbecues are lit. Fruity, acid-coloured ice lollies drip on to wrists. Babies sit chubby-kneed on rainbow-coloured picnic blankets and rusting garden furniture is resurrected from creaking sheds. People soak up the outdoors like it’s a thirst. Celebrating with burnt sausages in pillowy finger buns. Feeling the soft prickle of grass between their toes and basking in the warmth of their salty, sun-baked skin. Everyone is in love. Everyone is al fresco. Everyone is happy.

But I am not happy. I am indoors, seething. Every window of my flat is firmly fixed shut. Tiny daggers have found themselves underneath my eyelids and the whites of my eyes have taken on a hue akin to boiled lobster shell. There’s barbed wire scratching in the roof of my mouth, my throat and, inexplicably, deep inside my ear canals. I can no longer breathe – or more accurately wheeze – without sneezing, and the tissues have run out, so I’ve resorted to using the sleeve of my miserable, sagging, ‘lounging around the house’ jumper to stem the tide that flows from my nostrils. My skin itches like I’m covered with an army of ants. My bones ache. My limbs are limp. Woefully fatigued. Listless. This, my friends, is hay fever season. And hay fever season can go f*ck itself.

My pollen allergy flew in from the leftfield when I was a teenager, and I felt like I had been flattened by a truck. A late spring evening ‘jaunt’ landed me in A&E, where nurses pumped me full of enough antihistamine to reduce the golf-ball swelling in my eyes. 

It got worse after that. I became the girl who’d spend summer with a trail of well-fingered tissues in my wake, like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs. Spring would signal the start of my enduring relationship with my Salbutamol inhaler and I’d roll fistfuls of organic hay fever supplements around my tongue like chewing tobacco. Antihistamines rarely helped – unless I wanted to plod through life like a zombie with a lobotomy – and so damage control became key: brightening eye drops in my handbag, a pair of scratched sunglasses to be worn on the Tube, loo roll, loo roll everywhere (up sleeves, in the tops of socks, squirrelled away in bra padding). I even had hay fever on my wedding day, and distinctly remember pondering whether or not it was ‘the done thing’ to use my gypsophila bouquet to dab at my streaming nose.

And this year? This year my hay fever is seemingly on steroids. Which judging by the raft of bleary-eyed, sneezing, sorry-looking city-dwellers around me, is the case for many of us this year. So what exactly is this fresh hell? Why are we suffering so much? And what, oh what, can we do about it?

It’s a ponderous thing: why are those of us living in high-rise buildings, pounding concrete on our commutes and glimpsing just a sliver of sunshine through office blocks, suffering with the type of scratchy throats and itchy eyes that we might have thought the reserve of our country-dwelling counterparts? Surprisingly, people living in cities with barely a scrap of grass to be sat on are actually at risk of even worse hay fever, due to the double-whammy effect of air pollution and pollen. 

According to research from the National Pollen and Aerobiology Research Unit at the University of Worcester, the increase in urban hay fever is largely due to higher levels of pollution, which traps pollen – from trees and parks – at ground level, within breathing distance of sufferers. Ozone, nitrous oxide and sulphur dioxide emitted by traffic have also all been proven to make your respiratory tract more prone to allergens – if we’re breathing in this cocktail of pollution, the tiny hairs lining the walls of our nose won’t function efficiently, meaning allergens will stay there for longer. So forget the bucolic, pollen-filled countryside: earlier this year it was estimated that those living in the urban areas of London, Cardiff, Birmingham, Leeds and Glasgow will be worst affected by this so-called ‘pollenution’. Hoo-bloody-rah.

Many scientists also believe that global warming will soon make things worse for urbanites with allergies. Rising global temperatures, they say, may lead to longer blooming seasons, while rising CO2 levels could help weeds and trees proliferate and grow faster (plants absorb carbon dioxide to make fuel via photosynthesis, so more CO2 in the air means more food for the plants), leading to more allergy-producing pollen. In particular, this could affect the dreaded ragweed, a monstrous flowering plant that’s a main cause of hay fever for sufferers in the UK. In fact, scientists at the University of Vienna have modelled ragweed’s expanding range and increasing pollen production, and calculated that by 2060, the number of Europeans suffering from ragweed-induced hay fever could double to a whopping 77 million.

And just to make things a little more joyless, nobody actually knows why some of us develop the sort of hay fever that leaves us bedridden (a recent Sunday morning spent with a bag of frozen peas draped across my swollen face comes to mind), while the rest – aka jammy sorts who have no idea how lucky they are – are free to frolic symptom-free in fields of rapeseed, conifer trees and whatever such flora they so choose.

“Hay fever isn’t passed on from a parent to a child – you don’t inherit it – but some people do have a genetic disposition to getting allergies,” says Professor Adam Fox, a consultant allergist and former clinical lead of allergy at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital.

“Hay fever is partly about your genetics and partly about your environment, and we know you need to have a fair amount of exposure before developing it.”

What we do know, though, is that it’s not uncommon to develop it in adulthood, even if you’ve spent most of your life so far blissfully unaffected by the cruel agony of pollen allergies. Fox says it’s actually quite typical to develop hay fever in your twenties or thirties. 

“Very few children actually have hay fever,” he says. “Around 10% of 12-year-olds have it, 25% of 20-somethings and then this figure steadily increases in your 30s. However, you then tend to grow out of hay fever beyond this, because hay fever is our immune system reacting to pollen, and our immunity begins to decline with age.”

Some experts believe this late onslaught of symptoms can be linked to the fact that adults are less exposed to seasonal allergens than when they were children, so their immune systems treat pollen as a toxic agent when it’s eventually encountered. There’s also the hygiene hypothesis – the idea that our bodies aren’t as strong because we’re not exposed to infections when we are small children, and so our systems rebel when we’re older.

So that tickle in your nose that you might have been putting down to the remnants of a cold? It could actually be the beginnings of a years-long relationship with the irritant that is hay fever. Lucky you, and welcome to the gang; here are your complimentary antihistamines, and remember to make your peace with picnics.

URBAN HAY FEVER: WHY ME?

Cases of urban hay fever are now twice as common as their rural equivalent. Hence that scarlet-eyed commuter sitting next to you…

WHICH POLLEN IS YOUR ENEMY?

Hay fever occurs when the body makes allergic antibodies to pollen – but how and when you’ll be affected depends on what, exactly, you’re allergic to.

Here’s how to identify your pollen nemesis…

Grass pollen

With a season running from mid-May to July, grass pollen is the most common trigger, with 95% of sufferers allergic to it. “Most of those affected will be symptomatic during summer months when grass pollen is at its peak,” says Holly Shaw, a nurse adviser at Allergy UK, “although it’s possible to be allergic to more than one type of pollen.”

Grass pollen is released when wind blows, and is found in things such as lawn grass and rye. Symptoms include a blocked, runny nose, sinus pressure, itchy throat, a cough and a decreased sense of taste and/or smell.

Tree pollen 

This is typically a problem from March to mid-May. However, this year the UK had a later surge.

“The tree pollen season started later, with a cold spring delaying germination,” says Stephen Durham, a professor of allergy and respiratory medicine at Imperial College London. “With spates of warm weather you get a late germination and pollen release, so it’s all coming at once.” 

Tree pollen

Tree pollen

According to Allergy UK, 25% of sufferers are allergic to pollen from birch trees such as alder and hazel, with oak to next most common. Tree pollen allergies ten to trigger eye problems. 

Weed pollen

Weed pollen season runs from the end of June to September, and is the least likely to cause problems, but still affects around 20% of sufferers. Nettles are a major culprit, but don’t think you can treat allergies like you would a sting: dock plants (the leaves you may have rubbed on nettle rash when you were young) are also a contributor. 

Ragweed pollen is also a problem. A single plant can release more than a billion grains of pollen in a season – and thanks to warmer weather brought on by climate change, that season is extending into the autumn.

YOUR WEAPONS IN THE FIGHT AGAINST HAY FEVER

Experiencing that telltale bunged-up, sneezy, eye-watering sensation? Give these tried-and-tested treatments a go…

Domu Air Purifier 

This removes up to 99% of pollen inside its radius within an hour, so it’s great for sufferers who like to have windows open in summer.

£39.99, domu.co.uk

Boots Pharmaceuticals One-A-Day Allergy Relief

The active ingredient in these 10mg tablets is loratadine, which provides relief from sneezing, runny and itchy nose, and eye irritation. They can cause you to feel drowsy.

£11.49, boots.com

The Organic Pharmacy Hay Fever Spray

This homeopathic spray with chamomile, nettle and elderflower helps reduce the symptoms of hay fever. Spray twice on to the tongue when you feel symptoms coming.

£25, theorganicpharmacy.com

Pollinosan Luffa Nasal Spray

This nifty little nasal spray contains seven tropical herbs known for helping alleviate hay fever symptoms. The spray works by ‘rinsing’ and cleansing nasal passages of hay fever-triggering allergens.

£7.99, avogel.co.uk

Opticrom Allergy Eye Drops

This works on itchy, dry or watery eyes. It’s fast-acting and you should feel a difference within minutes. Its active ingredient, sodium cromoglicate, helps the body stop releasing chemicals behind itchy symptoms.

£6.03, thehealthcounter.com

HayMax Pure

This balm contains beeswax and sunflower oil, and can be slathered around nostrils and around the eye sockets to help keep out allergens

£7.29, available from Holland & Barrett.

Health Plus Bee Propolis

These pills can alleviate symptoms and contain amino acids, vitamin and minerals to help with energy levels.

£8.95, healthplus.co.uk

Anti-Allergy Fibrelite Pillow

While house dust doesn’t cause hay fever, it can exacerbate symptoms and cause similar ones. An anti-allergy pillow can help reduce exposure as you sleep

£9, bensonsforbeds.co.uk

Images: Getty