The Hay Fever Handbook
All you’ll need to cope with Spring’s misery-making allergies.
Debbie Honickman, a Toronto family doctor, never had hay fever as a child. Then in her forties, she started to react to grass in the spring, and could suddenly empathize with her allergy-suffering patients.
At first she found her symptoms so difficult “I thought, I can’t stand it!” Such was Honickman’s seasonal grief that she even contemplated leaving her province the following spring – “but I love the spring here because I love birding.”
She rhymes off her symptoms: “I feel congested, I have post-nasal drip, I snore more.” Honickman knows to expect a prolonged bout with ragweed in the fall as well – then a few years ago, she also developed allergic asthma. “I actually have to use an inhaler when my symptoms get bad. I had never had asthma in my life.”
As the grass and trees begin their spring pollinating ritual, many of us suffer with Honickman. More than five million Canadians have seasonal allergic rhinitis, commonly called hay fever. In fact, Canada has one of the highest rates of both allergic rhinitis and allergic asthma in the world, and the United States ranks only slightly behind.
The numbers of North Americans living with environmental allergies has risen rapidly. With so many suddenly suffering, Allergic Living offers this comprehensive guide – examining pollen’s havoc and the most effective means of turning off the weeping, the sneezing, the congestion and the misery.
What is Hay Fever?
As with other allergies, seasonal allergic rhinitis is an immune system over-response to a protein, in this case an inhaled pollen or a mould spore. Antibodies are supposed to protect our bodies, to defend, but the immune system of a person predisposed to allergy can mistakenly identify a certain protein – perhaps birch tree pollen – as an invader and begin to create antibodies against it.
These antibodies, which are called Immunoglobulin E or IgE, attach themselves to mast cells, which are abundant in the nose, eyes, lungs and gastrointestinal tract. When the offending pollen is again encountered, the IgE antibodies grab it, triggering the mast cells to release powerful chemicals, including histamine. This causes the allergic reaction.
Allergic rhinitis is often confused with irritant or non-allergic rhinitis, which is triggered by air pollution, smoke, strong odous or medication. Some people with hay fever or allergic rhinitis find that such irritants will further aggravate their allergic symptoms.
In hay fever, these are the itchy, watery, puffy eyes, runny nose and sneezing that are the stuff of medication ads.
When an allergic individual is exposed to a seasonal allergen, the chemical reaction begins: blood vessels dilate in the eyes and nose, the mucous membranes secrete fluids, and the itching and sneezing start. All this discomfort leads to sleep loss, fatigue, irritability and difficulty concentrating.
Sometimes the symptoms are confused with those of a cold. But Dr. Harold Kim, an allergist based in Kitchener, Ontario, says itchiness is a prime indication that allergies are the culprit. Another clue that it’s not a virus is that you won’t get better in a week or so.
“If symptoms are due to pollens such as trees and grass, they will last over a season,” Kim says. In addition, if the sufferer has asthma, he or she may experience shortness of breath, coughing or wheezing.
Next: How to Pollen and Mold-Proof