How to take action against allergies

For hay fever sufferers, spring is the season of sniffing and sneezing.

23 September 2014
by Julia Lamberti

Millions of people worldwide suffer from the group of allergic symptoms collectively known as allergic rhinitis or hay fever. Sufferers may experience a runny nose, nasal congestion, watering and itching eyes, coughing, sneezing and sinus pressure and/or pain. Other symptoms include blurred vision, facial swelling, wheezing, an itchy nose and throat and a decreased sense of smell or taste.

What causes seasonal allergies?

The symptoms are typically caused by an allergic reaction to plant pollen that becomes airborne in spring. “Tree blossoms release pollens and, a month or so later, grasses begin to pollinate,” explains Dr Adrian Morris, principal allergist at the Johannesburg and Cape Town Allergy Clinics. “This is when hay fever sufferers who are pollen sensitive and allergic begin their long summer of misery with nasal and eye symptoms.”

In autumn, mould spores can also cause hay fever symptoms and asthma.

Are you “atopic”?

Genetic, geographical and environmental factors all play a part. “Teenagers and young adults living in big cities are most affected and there’s usually a family history of hay fever, asthma and eczema,” explains Dr Morris. “We call these ‘atopic allergy-prone families.’”

Seasonal allergies are now more common than ever, with around 20 percent of the population suffering from hay fever, he says. “The prevalence of seasonal allergies has grown fourfold over the last 20 years and this may be because pollution makes us more sensitive to seasonal pollen and mould spores.”

Which treatment is right for you?

A visit to your doctor will confirm if you’re a sufferer of seasonal allergies or if your symptoms are caused by allergens like dust mites, pet dander, certain chemicals or foods.

Skin prick testing or a RAST (radioallergosorbent) blood test are the most common methods of allergy testing and can identify the pollen or other substances that trigger your symptoms. Once you’ve been positively diagnosed as suffering from an allergy, your doctor will recommend your best treatment options.

“Antihistamine tablets and nasal sprays make up the mainstay of seasonal allergy treatments and one can also be desensitised to pollen by using immunotherapy drops,” explains Dr Morris.

He also recommends using the herbal remedy Butterbur, sea salt nasal washes, and applying Vaseline to the nasal passages – in order to trap pollen before it triggers allergies. “There’s also some evidence that taking a teaspoonful of local honey daily may reduce hayfever symptoms.”

Dr Morris advises avoiding magnetic bands, nasal lights and gel coatings, as these tend to be gimmicky and ultimately ineffective. He adds that acupuncture and homeopathic treatments may also offer temporary relief but long-term results tend to be disappointing.

“Ask your Clicks pharmacist to assist by prescribing over-the-counter, non-sedating antihistamines such as cetirizine, loratadine and fexofenadine. Cromoglicate eye drops for eye allergies and saline nasal washes may help relieve hayfever symptoms and low-dose beclomethasone nasal steroid sprays are safe to use throughout the summer.”

Can allergies be prevented?

Dr Morris recommends that sufferers wear wraparound sunglasses to protect their eyes, shower to wash away pollen after returning home from work and avoid being outdoors at 6pm, when pollen levels peak.

Using your car’s air-conditioner, shutting windows, remaining indoors as much as possible and tumble drying clothing may also help.

“The good news is that hayfever doesn’t last forever,” says Morris. “The important thing is that you take the necessary measures to feel better until the season changes.”

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