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The Hay Fever Remedies That Work (And The Ones That Don’t)

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(Image credit: unknown)

After a long, cold winter the arrival of spring is generally seen as a cause for celebration, but remember that nothing good comes for free. For a significant and growing number of unfortunates, the cost of enjoying warmer weather is having to sneeze or blow your nose every 30 seconds.

Hay fever season has arrived and for the next five months this allergy will be doing its level best to ruin the traditional joys of spring and summer. In between all the al fresco meals and Aperol Spritzes, millions of us will be ploughing through boxes of tissues and drowning our peepers with eye drops in a bid to alleviate the symptoms of this seasonal pox. And the problem is only getting worse, because seasonal allergic rhinitis (as it’s more properly known) is on the rise.

Up to 30% of adults suffer from hay fever in the UK and that number is increasing, with both worsening air pollution and climate change routinely blamed. It’s easy to dismiss hay fever as a trivial concern, but the misery it causes sufferers can negatively affect your sleep, concentration, motivation and pretty much every waking moment. A Met Office survey in 2016 found that 11% of UK adults took days off work due to the severity of their hay fever, and estimated that people’s productivity dropped by 26% when battling the symptoms.

So with more of us reacting when pollen gets all up in our grill, can anything be done to combat this growing menace?

The Causes of Hay Fever

The condition is caused by an allergic reaction to pollen, where the body responds to the allergen as if it was being attacked by a virus. The vast majority of sufferers in the UK (90%) are allergic to Timothy grass and rye grass pollen (prevalent between mid-May and July). One in four are allergic to tree pollen (which strikes from late March to mid-May), while less common still is an allergy to weed pollen (at its height between the end of June and September).

Sufferers of asthma and eczema are more likely to get hay fever and pollen levels tend to peak between 5-10am and late evening, so either lock yourself in at home or hope for rain.

Hay Fever Remedies

There is no cure for hay fever, your best bet is to avoid pollen entirely. Unfortunately that is nigh on impossible, so try these effective treatments to reduce your seasonal suffering.

Antihistamines

The primary weapon in the war on pollen helps to manage hay fever by blocking the effect of histamine, which the body releases in response to allergens, causing the irritating symptoms.

Antihistamines come in many forms, the most common of which are one-a-day tablets, nasal sprays and eye drops. These are available in all supermarkets and pharmacies, and the generic versions are just as effective as branded ones. There are also many different kinds of antihistamine pill available, all of which can work in reducing the symptoms of hay fever.

If you find your chosen antihistamine isn’t working for you, it’s worth trying a different kind before giving up on them entirely. “There is no ‘best’ tablet to take,” says Richard Hackett, pharmacist with Well Pharmacy (opens in new tab). “Different tablets work better for different people. You need to take a trial-and-error approach.”

The two most widely available types are cetirizine and loratadine, with all major supermarkets offering own-brand versions of both, and there’s also acrivastine and chlorphenamine, which are used in Benadryl and Piriton respectively. Make sure you take the treatment regularly – not just on days with a high pollen count – and ideally start two weeks before hay fever season hits. This gives the treatment the best chance of working.

Antihistamines do have known side effects, although the modern kinds are generally non-drowsy, but all the same it’s best to check the box before popping the pills, especially if you’re already taking other medication regularly.

Non-Antihistamine Nasal Sprays And Eye Drops

“Nasal sprays are equally effective as tablets,” says Hackett, “and can be used alone or in combination with tablets. Nasal sprays don’t cause drowsiness.”

Nasal sprays and drops can contain corticosteroids, which reduce the inflammation in your nose caused by the allergic reaction. They can also work by blocking the nose to create a barrier against pollen, and you can also try decongestant sprays like Sudafed to ease the symptoms in your schnoz. However, you can’t keep taking it all season long.

“Decongestants shouldn’t be used for more than a week at a time because they can make symptoms worse if used for long periods,” says Hackett.

Eye drops can reduce the unbearable itchiness hay fever causes, though they aren’t as effective as pills or nasal sprays.

“Eye drops are unlikely to resolve all symptoms but are useful as an add-on for hay fever sufferers with irritated eyes,” says Hackett.

Immunotherapy

In severe cases – when no over-the-counter or GP-prescribed tablet, spray or drop is working – you might be referred for immunotherapy treatment. This involves exposing you to small amounts of the allergen over a long period (three years is recommended) to build up immunity to it.

Pollen Blocking Measures

Vaseline under the nostrils, wraparound sunglasses and a brimmed hat – not just a classic look sure to impress all around you but also a good bet for stopping pollen in its tracks. You can also try changing clothes and taking a shower when you get home to reduce exposure to the pollen that might have settled on you while out and about.

The internet is littered with natural hay fever remedies and the most common “cure” of them all is local honey. The theory is similar to immunotherapy, in that the honey contains small amounts of the pollen you will be exposed to in your neighbourhood so it can desensitise you to the allergens without provoking hay fever itself.

Local honey has plenty of anecdote-citing advocates, which is perhaps down to the fact that the cure involves eating a teaspoon of delicious honey every day rather than any real efficacy. Bees collect pollen from flowers, rather than the grass, trees and weeds that cause hay fever, so honey contains the wrong sort of pollen to help desensitise you to the allergens that cause hay fever.

In short, immunotherapy treats the problem by using the exact grass, tree or weed allergen you react to, while bees go for bright flowers to make their honey and don’t give a fig about your runny nose. The monsters. Nature’s out to get you after all.

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.