June 20, 2018

Getting a handle on hay fever

By Anna Sharratt

For many people, the joys of summer come with the suffering of hay fever. But there are new techniques and medications that can help.

Five years ago, the pain and pressure in Taylor Roberts’ head was so bad he thought he had a brain tumour. Plagued by pressure in his neck, a “cloudy” sensation in his head and a sharp pain behind his eyes when he bent over, he was convinced he had something terrible.

“It was difficult to work,” he says. “I couldn’t concentrate. It was scary.”

The first doctor who examined him thought it was a muscular issue and sent him for an X-ray that found nothing amiss. Then he visited another general practitioner, who looked into his ears and nose, saw signs of congestion and quickly dismissed the brain tumour theory. “She said my symptoms were indicative of hay fever,” says Roberts, a Toronto-based office manager. He had never considered the allergic condition that plagues sufferers with sneezing, sinus pain and itchy, watery eyes when pollen and other airborne allergens from plants and fungi are at their peak.

He then realized that his severe symptoms (which afflict only a minority of hay fever sufferers) had come on the previous spring -- and it was spring again. “I had never made the seasonality connection,” he says.

Do you have hay fever?

Hay fever, which is also known as allergic rhinitis, is essentially the body’s overreaction to pollen (from trees, grass, ragweed, etc.) and mould. In Canada, it generally strikes first in the spring, when pollen counts are highest due to plants blooming and fungi releasing spores into the air.

But it can also affect sufferers earlier and later in the season, with tree pollen beginning as early as March, grass pollen at its highest in May and June, ragweed starting in August, peaking in early September and lasting until the first fall frost, and mould beginning in the early spring and lasting as late as November.

People with hay fever can have mild forms or severe cases, which can lead to trouble functioning at work or the avoidance of social events -- particularly those taking place outdoors.

Hay fever symptoms include:

  • Runny or congested nose
  • Puffy or itchy eyes, nose and throat
  • Sneezing
  • Headaches
  • Sinus pressure or facial pain
  • Loss of sense of smell and taste
  • Fatigue and trouble sleeping
  • Irritability

How to get the hay fever help you need

The first challenge is to get your doctor to take your symptoms seriously. “It’s often undertreated,” says Dr. Harold Kim, an allergist in Kitchener, Ont., “as no one dies of hay fever.” He says that if you’re really suffering, and your symptoms aren’t going away after a week or two, press your doctor for help.

He or she could refer you to an allergist who can pinpoint your exact allergy through a scratch test -- and determine if you have any other allergies. In consultation with your doctor, you can also try:

  • Medication such as a non-sedating antihistamine to relieve your symptoms
  • Eye drops to relieve itching and inflammation
  • A nasal decongestant
  • An oral steroid to reduce airway inflammation
  • Cromolyn sodium, a medication that is prescribed as well as available over the counter. It reduces histamine, a chemical the body releases during an allergic reaction.
  • Rinsing your sinuses with sterile, boiled or distilled water using a bulb syringe or with sterile saline solution via a neti pot, a ceramic pot sold in pharmacies and health food stores. You can use the neti pot to pour saline solution into each nostril, helping loosen mucous and soothe irritated membranes.
  • Having allergy injections (immunotherapy), which given over three to five years can often eliminate hay fever by altering the body’s reaction to airborne allergens

To help reduce hay fever symptoms:

  1. Keep your windows closed and air conditioning on.
  2. Avoid sweeping to prevent making pollens airborne.
  3. Dust with a damp cloth.
  4. Wash your clothes after being outside.

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