Hayfever (and other allergies)

This page gives you information and advice on how to manage your hayfever symptoms with simple self-help measures and over-the-counter remedies.

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Also read our guide to using medicines safely. Always seek advice from a pharmacist if you are unsure if a medicine is suitable for you.

What is hayfever?

Hayfever symptoms happen when your immune system mistakes pollen, from plants and trees, for a dangerous foreign protein. When pollen reaches your eyes and nose, histamine (the main ‘defence’ chemical) is released and it triggers the symptoms we know as allergy. Once you know exactly what is causing your allergy, the best way to prevent it happening is to avoid this allergen (something that causes an allergy). Of course, most allergens are microscopic, we can’t see them, so avoiding them completely can be difficult.

What is an allergy?

An allergy is simply your body over-reacting to a normally harmless substance. Our bodies are great at protecting us from all manner of invading germs and foreign particles in the environment. Our immune systems recognise these invaders and produce all sorts of natural chemicals to protect us.

But sometimes our bodies mistakenly respond to a foreign particle, or protein, that wouldn’t actually do us any harm. Our immune systems actually cause the symptoms of an allergy; itching, sneezing, runny nose, watery eyes, in an attempt to rid the body of these harmless proteins.

Some people are more prone to allergies than others, and often people will be allergic to more than one foreign protein. There is a theory that in our modern, cleaner, more sterile environment there are fewer ‘dangerous’ proteins to encounter and so our eager immune systems are more likely to attack whatever we do encounter. Things like pet-hair, pollens and proteins in foods (eggs, nuts, shellfish…) are all common causes of allergy.

The common symptoms of hayfever are:

  • Red, itchy, water eyes
  • Itchy, runny nose
  • Blocked ‘stuffy’ nose
  • Sneezing
  • Headache
  • Itchy throat

Our Pharmacist recommends…..

The best approach to managing hayfever symptoms is to follow the self-help advice for avoiding pollen and use a combination of over-the-counter medicines.

For adults, use a steroid nasal spray every day throughout the hayfever season. This should control all your symptoms, including itchy eyes, but sodium cromoglicate eye drops would help as well.

Alternatively use a non-drowsy antihistamine tablet such as loratadine or cetirizine in combination with eye drops.

Different antihistamines work better in different people and it may take some trial and error to find the one that works best for you. Switching between different antihistamines, rather than always using the same one, can also help to control your symptoms better.

What is the best treatment for me?

Ultimately the best treatment for you is one that relieves your symptoms without causing too many side-effects.

Antihistamines work well, cause relatively few side-effects and can be safely used by most people. They are convenient and can be used every day to treat symptoms. They are the best treatments for children and most brands come in liquid form.

Steroid nasal sprays are great for adults but they can’t be bought for children under 18. They are relatively free of side-effects when used at the recommended dose and actually prevent your symptoms from happening in the first place.

Non-medicinal treatments such as the protective and salt-water sprays or red light therapy would be ideal for children, pregnant women, or people taking lots of other medication.

How can I avoid pollen?

There are some simple measures you can take to try and minimise your contact with pollen. You can’t completely avoid all the pollen in the air, but you can try:

  • First, understand which pollen(s) you react to
    Tree pollen is released from February to June
    Grass pollen is released from May to July 
    Plant/flower pollens can be released from March to September
    Mould spores can also trigger allergic symptoms and are usually released from June to October
  • You might be allergic to one or more types of pollen meaning your hayfever season could be different to somebody else’s.
  • During your hayfever season, keep an eye on the pollen count. You can check the Met Office’s pollen forecast here (https://­www.­metoffice.­gov.­uk/­public/­weather/­pollen-forecast/)
  • When pollen counts start to rise:
    Keep windows and doors shut (especially early mornings and evenings when the pollen rises and falls
    Wear wraparound sunglasses when outside
    Shower or wash your hair after being outside
    Keep car windows closed and fit a pollen filter
    Avoid gardening or cutting grass (or wear a mask)
    Vacuum carpets and dust surfaces regularly

What remedies can I buy for hayfever (allergies)?

There are lots of different remedies available to buy over-the-counter. They work in one of two main ways; either by blocking or reducing your body’s allergic response, or by reducing your contact with pollen.

Antihistamine tablets (and liquids)

Antihistamines work by blocking the effects of histamine in your body. Histamine causes itching, sneezing and watery eyes and nose. The two most popular antihistamines are loratadine (Clarityn®) and cetirizine (Zirtek®). Both these medicines only need to be taken once a day to keep your symptoms at bay. This makes them convenient, and because they are unlikely to cause drowsiness, shouldn’t interrupt your day too much.

Chlorphenamine (Piriton®) is an older antihistamine, but it still works well. It has to be taken three or four times a day to keep working and it can cause drowsiness, especially in children. This can make it less convenient and more likely to affect concentration at school or work. Acrivastine (Benadryl®) is taken three times a day, and might also cause drowsiness in some people.

Steroid nasal sprays

Corticosteroids occur naturally in your body. They help to dampen down the immune or allergic response by reducing inflammation in the body. Nasal sprays work directly on the lining of the nose to reduce swelling, sneezing and the blocked ‘stuffy’ feeling. They also have an effect on the eyes, helping to relieve the redness and itching.

Beclometasone (Beconase®), Fluticasone (Pirinase®) and Triamcinolone (Nasacort®) are the most commonly used corticosteroids for hayfever and allergies. They need to be used every day to prevent symptoms from occurring and its best to start using them a week or two before you expect your hayfever symptoms to start. Use them throughout the hayfever season (for up to three months) to prevent symptoms developing.

Allergy eye drops

For many people itchy, watery eyes can be the most aggravating of hayfever symptoms. Eye drops containing sodium cromoglicate work by stopping histamine being released by cells in the eye. By using them every day you can prevent the itchiness from developing in the first place. The eye drops can cause some stinging when you first put them in, but this will soon settle down and there are very few other side-effects.

Decongestant nasal sprays

There are many decongestant sprays available, most of them contain xylometazoline. They do work well to relieve congestion quickly, but they won’t help with itchy eyes. They shouldn’t be used for more than seven days continuously as they can actually cause congestion again. This makes them less suitable for hayfever which can last for several weeks or months.

‘Protective’ nasal sprays and washes

These types of product are used to wash away pollen or prevent pollen from coming into contact with the sensitive linings of the nose. Prevalin® Allergy is a sprayable gel that forms a protective coating over the lining of your nose. This traps pollen and other allergens and prevents them from triggering the allergic response. Sterimar® Stop and Protect is a salt-water based spray that cleans the nasal passages and traps allergens like pollen. The salts also help to unblock the nose. Neither of these products contains a medicine so they are relatively free of side-effects and can be used safely by children, pregnant women and people taking other medicines.

‘Red Light’ therapy

Another non-medicinal treatment is to use red light therapy. A device that emits red light is inserted into the nostrils. It is thought that the light stops cells in the nose from releasing histamine. After a few home treatments your allergy symptoms may be relieved. There is some evidence to show it works and there are no known side effects.

*Seek medical advice if your symptoms worsen or do not improve after a few days of using a treatment. Always read the label. Always ask a pharmacist if you are unsure whether a medicine is suitable for you.

*This medical information was written by our clinical pharmacist Michael Stewart.

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