Hayfever, the pollen allergy that sends your immune system haywire
If you experience hayfever, you’re not alone. It’s estimated that 10 – 20% of adults worldwide suffer from the same frustrating allergy.
Hayfever (or allergic rhinitis) is an allergy to airborne substances which creates inflammation in the lining of the throat, nose and eyes. These substances include pollen, dust mites, animal dander, environmental pollution, smoke and mold.
Generally, hayfever refers to an allergy to pollen from flowers, trees and grasses. When the allergy is to animals, house dust mites, pollution or other sources, then the term ‘allergic rhinitis’ is used.
Hayfever is caused by the immune system overreacting when the nose, eyes or throat encounter pollen. For reasons still unknown by medical science, this overreaction to a something as harmless as pollen seems to be caused by the body mistaking it for a harmful virus. It’s also not fully understood why some people’s immune systems over-react this way but people with a family history of allergies, particularly asthma or eczema, or who were exposed to second hand smoke in childhood are more prone to hayfever.
As a result, the immune system releases large amounts of a chemical known as histamine. This causes itching, inflammation and irritation in the local tissue.
Symptoms that occur soon after contact with the allergen are:
- Itchy nose, eyes, mouth, throat or skin
- Running nose
- Watering eyes
- Problems with smell
Symptoms that can develop later include:
- Sore throat
- Nasal congestion
- Dark circles and puffiness under the eyes
- Fatigue and irritability
When severe, hayfever can leave you feeling very unwell in general, as the immune system sets off such a strong reaction affecting the whole body that you will want to stay in bed. In some people, high pollen levels can also trigger asthma.
While not life threatening, hayfever is extremely annoying for sufferers and can really impact quality of life, feelings of general well-being and even interfere with sleep patterns.
Hayfever in South Africa
While hayfever season is usually regarded as a spring and early summer problem, many South African sufferers feel they experience the allergy year-round.
For those living in, or traveling to Gauteng regularly, that can be the case. With so many trees flowering at different times through the year, Gauteng’s air contains pollen from January right through to December. The other provinces do get some pollen-free time between May and July, but even in July, trees in many provinces start blooming making it difficult to determine if you’re starting with a winter cold or experiencing hayfever.
For all sufferers, September is the month hayfever in South Africa really gets going with numerous trees, grasses and weeds blooming with gusto. The greatest allergy causing plants now are dandelions, trees like the acacia and the plane tree, and many different grass types including common lawn grasses like kikuyu, buffalo, and bermuda which are often found on golf courses, public areas and sports fields. Maize is another high pollen plant. People are often more susceptible to one kind of pollen than another so it’s worth taking note of what’s blooming when you are experiencing intense hayfever episodes.
Interestingly plants with brightly colored flowers and sweet smells seldom cause hayfever. Their pollen is very large and they rely on birds and insects to carry the pollen away rather than the wind. Humid and windy weather helps pollen spread, while rain clears it from the air.
Can hayfever be cured?
Hayfever cannot be cured but there are many treatments to relieve the symptoms as well as products that help reduce the occurrence and frequency of hayfever episodes. These include A.Vogel’s Allergy Formula, and Pollinosan which can be taken long term.
Other treatments include antihistamine tablets or sprays, nasal sprays and eye drops that help to soothe the tissues and wash away pollen. Decongestants and throat sprays can help relieve nasal congestion and soothe sore throats.
Minimising hayfever risk
It’s not easy to avoid exposure to pollen because pollen spores are tiny and can be carried on the wind for miles. But you can try to avoid or reduce the amount of pollen you’re exposed to.
- Check the daily pollen counts on weather services. While not easy for outdoors-loving South Africans, try to avoid fields, parks, sports fields and golf courses on these days
- Keep your bedroom windows closed overnight. Pollen is released in the early morning and in the evenings as the air cools pollen that’s been floating around high in the air starts to fall to ground level again and can easily come wafting in your windows
- Keep your car windows closed and use your air conditioner on the recirculate setting if you can
- Go to the beach! Sea breezes blow pollen inland so instead of heading for the mountains or parks, go the beach instead
- Wear sunglasses (wraparound styles are best) to help protect your eyes from pollen
- Change your clothes when you get home
- Steer clear of mowing the lawn. If you must mow, wear a face mask
- Avoid drying laundry outside on days when pollen counts are high.