Why Do We Get Hay Fever and Can We Prevent it?
Summer brings with it a myriad of ways we feel amazing; waking up early with the lighter mornings, the feeling of warm sunshine on our faces, and the vibrant colours of the bright blue sky teamed with rich green grass. However, with the season, comes seasonal allergies. Today we’re asking why do we get hay fever and is there anything we can do to minimise the allergy symptoms?
What actually is hay fever?
Hay fever is our body’s overreaction to certain stimuli in the environment – typically pollen (trees, grass, hay), mould, or animal dander, but it’s more commonly perceived as its symptoms – blocked/runny nose, watery eyes, stuffy ears, sneezing, and breathing difficulties.
These symptoms are caused when we inhale pollen (or other stimuli), and our immune cells trigger an immune response.
What causes hay fever symptoms?
Immune cells have membrane-bound proteins called immunoglobulins (also known as antibodies) on their surface, which can signal for certain immune cells to be produced that can help fight the pathogen. Normally this is helpful for us, and is what enables us to recover from infections, but when it comes to allergies, our cells ‘overreact’ to the stimulus, triggering an immune response – in this case, the release of histamine.
Releasing histamine triggers the second stage of the immune response, and causes the release of inflammatory substances, leading to an overproduction of mucus in the nose, which can give that bunged-up/stuffy feeling.
This can lead the tube that connects the nose to the eyes to become inflamed and close off – the purpose of this tube is to drain tears/fluid out of the eye and into the nose, so when this is blocked off, it causes a build-up of tears in the eyes that can’t be removed, resulting in watery eyes.
Inflammation then spreads through the throat and further through the nose, causing difficulty breathing, and the urge to sneeze.
Why do we get hay fever?
Hay fever can also be referred to as ‘seasonal allergies’, due to differing seasonalities in plants, and therefore different pollens being present at different points of the year. People tend to be most affected in the spring and summer, as this is when most plants and trees have bloomed for the year.
As mentioned, tree pollen rises first, normally between late March to mid-May, and affects around 25% of the population.
Grass pollen season is next, typically from mid-May to July, although grass pollen does have two peaks – the first in the first two weeks of June, and the second in July, where it then tails off. We have weed pollen, which can be released all year round, but most often from the end of June to September.
However, the amount of pollen you’re exposed to can vary with where you live. If you’re further north, the pollen seasons tend to start later, and so are shorter. Additionally, if you’re in an urban area, or living by the coast, you’re likely to be exposed to less pollen than if in the countryside. The weather can also play a part – wetter weather increases pollen production, whereas dry weather will reduce it.
What can we do naturally to reduce symptoms or to prevent it from happening?
As hay fever is caused by our own immune system, there is, unfortunately, nothing that can be adjusted to prevent it, but the NHS does have some tips that may help, such as putting Vaseline around your nose to try to trap any pollen before it enters your body, keeping windows and doors closed where possible, and making sure you’re regularly washing your clothes and cleaning your home to ensure that pollen can’t build up too much.
Otherwise, make sure you’re stocked up on anti-histamine and drinking plenty of water.
What is the difference between an intolerance and an allergy?
It is almost seen as trendy for some people to claim they have an intolerance or allergy, thanks to the rise in gluten-free diets, the idea that dairy causes acne and that soy is hormone-ridden, amongst other things. For example, someone eating lots of chocolate over Christmas and getting spots may blame their poor skin on the dairy from the chocolate and claim they have an intolerance or allergy, ignoring the fact that they have been drinking much more than usual and perhaps have passed out before washing their face.
With such claims being spewed out so frequently, it’s no wonder individuals take to avoiding these foods, normally in the form of feigning some form of allergy or intolerance.
Furthermore, in light of the recent confessions from Burger King about their new “plant-based” item, it is important to understand how critical allergies can be.
But what is the difference, and why is it so important that this is known?
An intolerance is defined by the NHS as a ‘difficulty digesting certain foods and having an unpleasant physical reaction to them’, the unpleasant physical reaction normally manifesting as stomach pain, bloating, wind and/or diarrhoea, and skin rashes. These tend to occur a few hours after consuming the intolerable food.
Intolerances are normally diagnosed by running food elimination diets, whereby an individual excludes food items one by one and keeps a record of what they’ve eaten and how they feel after eating it, looking for any patterns of symptoms with particular foods.
Intolerances can be painful but are rarely severe and never fatal.
Allergies are very different to intolerances, and can often be fatal. An allergy is defined by the NHS as ‘a reaction produced by the body’s immune system when exposed to a normally harmless substance’. There are 14 ‘major’ allergens, which are always listed in bold on ingredients lists. These are Celery, Gluten, Crustaceans, Eggs, Fish, Lupin, Milk, Molluscs, Nuts, Peanuts, Sesame Seeds, Soya, and Sulphur Dioxide.
Allergies occur when antibodies deem a harmless protein on food, drink or any substance to be harmless. This triggers the body’s immune system to try to ‘fight off’ the “harmful” substance, leading to symptoms such as sneezing, a runny/blocked nose, red/itchy/watery eyes, wheezing and coughing, a red, itchy rash and worsening of asthma or eczema symptoms.
Severe allergic reactions are known as anaphylaxis – these are extremely serious and can be fatal, and always need some form of medical intervention (whether that be via EpiPen or an A&E trip). Anaphylaxis symptoms include: feeling lightheaded/faint, breathing difficulties, wheezing, a fast heartbeat, clammy skin, confusion and anxiety, collapsing/losing consciousness, and sometimes hives, feeling/being sick, swelling or stomach pain.
Symptoms of allergies and intolerances have very little overlap, and so can often be determined by assessing the symptoms an individual is presenting with.
So why is it so important to understand the difference?
Allergies can be fatal, whereas, as uncomfortable as symptoms of intolerances can be, the intolerance itself is never fatal. Therefore, it is greatly important that the difference is known, as accidentally exposing someone to something they are intolerant to will, as stated, be uncomfortable, but it will not be fatal.
Carelessness and/or laziness of restaurant workers, for example, could be fatal if they mistake an allergy for an intolerance – for someone with anaphylaxis, even a trace of the food they are allergic to could be fatal. Knowing the difference and being able to apply the terms correctly will start to reduce the carelessness exhibited by some around allergies, thinking that people are overreacting.
‘Intolerance’ and ‘allergy’ are not synonymous, so it is important to understand the differences and use the relevant term.
Is there anything we can do to soothe allergies?
Some evidence has shown that omega-3 can help to reduce inflammation in the body, so including omega-3 sources like salmon, tuna, flax, and soy may help reduce symptoms like a stuffy nose or watery eyes, but more research is required as to the direct impact of anti-inflammatory foods in relation to hay fever.
However, the only true way to avoid hay fever is to avoid pollen, which is highly unrealistic. But you can reduce your exposure to pollen by trying to keep windows and doors shut, drying your clothes inside, showering more regularly to wash the pollen off, and making sure you’re stocked up on antihistamines, too!