Nothing to be sneezed at
Hay fever is also known as seasonal allergic rhinitis. Many believe that it should not be called hay fever because it is caused by an allergic response to pollen — the male reproductive parts of plants, grasses, trees and fungal spores — not hay!
The congestion, sneezing and running nose can start early in the year, going right through the summer till October when mould spores are still present.
“About 25 per cent of hay fever sufferers are allergic to tree pollens such as birch, which has pollen that can be released as early as April. However, the majority of sufferers’ symptoms will peak between mid-May and early July,” says James Hull, a respiratory and general internal medicine specialist.
The timing of hay fever also depends on where you live; apparently the further north you live the later it comes. “This could be down to the regional variation in the atopic genotype or an exposure to aeroallergens in early life,” explains Hull.
With the problem affecting about three million people in Britain, cycling through the summer when the pollen levels are at their highest can be a miserable time.
As the symptoms of hay fever vary from minor irritation to severe incapability, some sufferers may still be able to race and train, while others with be unable to perform at all.
There is, however, good news for hay fever sufferers as there are many modern, effective treatments available. But if you haven’t done it already, it is a good idea to see your GP to work out which treatment would suit you best.
Beat the fever
APART from taking anti-histamine tablets, nasal sprays and anti-allergy treatments, there isn’t much you can do to avoid that nasty pollen, but there are a few things that will help.
Sleeping with the windows closed; not hanging your cycling gear and clothes outside to dry; wearing glasses to protect your eyes; putting Vaseline on the lining of your nose and always showering after a ride and before bed to get rid of any pollen caught on your body are all ways that may help to control your symptoms. But for some, following these guidelines is simply not enough.
As the most common treatment, anti-histamines come in two types, ones that cause drowsiness and those that are non-sedating. They knock out the body’s immune system, preventing the pollens from educing an uncomfortable response. They may not tackle all your symptoms well enough on their own. You will also find that the non-sedating ones are more expensive, but of course these will benefit you more, especially if you are doing an intense training session or race, as you really can’t afford to feel tired and drowsy when riding on the open road.
Many people need other medication like nasal sprays and eye drops to accompany the anti-histamines as a more direct and effective treatment. Of course, these only help the affected area so they won’t help combat any other symptoms, leaving the rest of the immune system alone. You will also find that you will need to use these continually for a number of days for them to be effective, so patience is the key.
Also available from your GP are anti-allergy injections. Widely used throughout the world, these are usually only available to those who have severe symptoms, are often time consuming, and — when seeking the treatment away from the NHS — they can be quite expensive.
Getting the jab
Offering long-term protection from allergies, patients can be injected with small doses of pollen allergens over a number of years in order to teach the body to deal with pollen levels without the reaction. It is said to clear hay fever for up to five years.
The good news, however, is that with age your hay fever can improve. This is because the immune system matures and stops overreacting to the presence of pollen. Food can also influence susceptibility to hay fever and its severity.
“The best thing you can do to diminish hay fever symptoms is clean up your diet,” explains nutritionist Lucy-Ann Prideaux. “If you consume lots of added sugar then cut that down. Too much sugar dampens your immune system, so you body
is unable to fight off symptoms as easily.
“Foods high in anti-oxidants like fruit, veg, nuts, seeds and fish are also thought to help calm down the immune response to pollen, as does a high dose of vitamin C and the bioflavonoid quercetin, which is not only a great anti-histamine but also has anti-inflammatory properties.
“Nettle tea is also worth trying as not only is it natural and full of vitamin C, it also contains a good source of anti-histamine
Homeopathic treatments have also shown to help hay fever. These can be used on their own or combined with antihistamines and anti-allergy products as they are not always strong enough to control all the symptoms.