As 21 million people prepare to mainline antihistamines ahead of hay fever season, Andréa Childs decodes your allergies and reveals the new go-to remedies.
It starts with a sneeze, but descends into a head-thumping, face-aching, throat-itching hell. And that’s just hay fever, which hits a high in May. For many of us, allergies are a 24/7, 365-day-a-year game of dare, as we trade off having a life – going to the gym, eating food, walking the dog – with triggering our symptoms.
Almost 21 million adults in the UK (51 per cent of which are women) suffer from an allergy of some description; 10 million have multiple allergies. The effects range in severity but include skin rashes, respiratory problems, vomiting and diarrhoea, and life-threatening anaphylactic shock.
‘Allergies can be inherited, but you may have a different trigger to your parent. You can also develop them suddenly as adults, despite having never had them before,’ says airborne allergen expert Max Wiseberg. ‘They’re caused when you react to
a substance that’s usually harmless. Your immune system responds by flooding your body with histamines to remove the threat, causing classic allergy symptoms.’
Antihistamines are the standard solution but experts recommend daily, non-drowsy versions. However, there’s now a new raft of bespoke alternatives for each individual allergy, too.
Allergies to tree and grass pollen
For some, daffodils are the first signs of spring. For others, it’s uncontrolled sneezing and weeping eyes. ‘Ninety-five per cent of all people with hay fever react to grass pollen, and 25 per cent of us react to tree pollen, both of which are released between March and July,’ says Wiseberg.
‘It took me years to realise my “summer colds” were actually hay fever,’ admits Catherine Cooper, a copywriter. Wiseberg’s simple self-test could have helped her sooner. Try asking yourself, do you get symptoms at the same time every year? What colour is your mucus? (Green is likely to indicate a cold; clear is probably hay fever.) And how long do the symptoms last? (Most colds don’t drag on for more than a couple of weeks.) ‘Another factor is how much pollen is in the air,’ says Wiseberg. ‘Some find their hay fever is triggered only when the pollen reaches a certain level,’ so check Clarityn’s Pollen Forecast UK app for a daily update.
Wiseberg also advises sufferers to ‘keep doors and windows closed; shower and change when you come home to remove any pollen; avoid drying washing outside; and wear sunglasses to protect your eyes.’
Remedies include allergy barrier balms, which are applied under your nostrils and beneath the eyes, to trap the pollen before it reaches sensitive tissues. We like HayMax Pure Organic Drug-Free Allergen Barrier Balm, £6.99, haymax.biz. Alternatively, red-light therapy – a two-pronged device that shines infrared lights up the nostrils – promises to suppress the cells that release histamines. Try LloydsPharmacy Allergy Reliever, £19.99, lloydspharmacy.com.
Allergies to dust mites
It’s not dust mites that are the problem – it’s the protein in their faeces. The microscopic mites live in clothing, soft furnishings and bedding (up to 10 million in a single mattress, according to home hygiene expert Dr Lisa Ackerley), where they happily deposit around 20 droppings each per day, triggering asthma, eczema, hives and allergic rhinitis (sneezing and itching).
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‘I was diagnosed with a severe dust-mite allergy 15 years ago. I’d get asthma attacks in dusty places and wake up in the night wheezing,’ says Fiona Sturges, from Brighton. ‘Visiting my mother is uncomfortable as she has ancient upholstery and beds that were last aired in roughly 1954.’
Allergy expert Dr Rob Hicks advises extreme cleaning to blast dust mites and recommends washing bedding above 60˚C weekly, as well as protecting mattresses and pillows with allergen-proof covers, damp-dusting surfaces and blitzing carpets with a high-filtration vacuum. Better still, replace carpets with wooden flooring.
‘Three years ago my GP referred me to an allergy clinic offering immunotherapy and now, every six weeks, I’m injected with a serum of distilled dust mite faeces,’ says Sturges. ‘I get a huge itchy welt from the jab, then for 12 hours afterwards I’m ravenously hungry and incredibly tired, which is apparently my immune system shouting, “WTF?”. But it’s improved my symptoms by 50 per cent, so it’s worth it.’
If immunotherapy seems drastic, try a porcelain salt pipe, which filters air over natural salt crystals as you breathe in. Using it for 15-20 minutes a day when symptoms hit is thought to reduce mucus, cleanse nasal passages and opens airways. The system adopts the same principle as salt cave therapy, which was developed after experts discovered salt miners do not suffer from respiratory problems. Try Cisca Saltpipe, £26.99, thesaltpipe.co.uk.
Allergies to pet hair and saliva
In the UK, pets are the second most common cause of allergy in the home, not least because dogs and cats shed large amounts of skin cells and hair (aka, dander). People with sensitivities may also react to an animal’s sweat, urine or saliva. ‘I was slobbered on by my boss’s dog and broke out in a huge rash,’ cringes Louise Everett, a nurse.
‘Don’t allow animals to sleep in your bedroom and, if possible, restrict them to a number of rooms in the house,’ says allergist Dr Dana Wallace. ‘Antihistamines and eye drops work temporarily, but they won’t cure the allergy.’ If you don’t want to part with your pet, she recommends washing your hands after touching them and extreme cleaning to remove animal dander from furnishings. Or, you could literally suck the offending allergen from the atmosphere: the Philips Air Purifier Anti-Allergen with NanoProtect Filter, £380, philips.co.uk, removes 99 per cent of airborne particles, including pet hair, dust and pollen, and has an air-quality indicator to monitor indoor pollution levels.
Allergies to food
‘I can’t eat avocados’; ‘courgettes bring on crippling stomach pains’; ‘I have a squid allergy’; ‘I’m allergic to wheat, dairy and soya’: these are just a few of the responses I received from friends when asked about food allergies. ‘It’s thought our modern, Western lifestyle is to blame [for food allergies increasing at a faster rate than any other], and studies show that we may not be exposed to as much bacteria as we need for a healthy gut,’ says Holly Shaw, nurse advisor with Allergy UK (allergyuk.org). There have also been links to agricultural pesticides used in food production, which explains why four in ten shoppers now eat organic.
Food allergies are still less common than a food intolerance, for example, to gluten or lactose (an intolerance doesn’t involve the immune system; it occurs when the body is unable to process certain food elements and can cause bloating, cramps and wind). ‘Strict avoidance is the only real solution for a food allergy,’ says Shaw.
Allergies to mould
Start sneezing at the gym or wheezing at the pool and you may blame the odour of sweat mixed with deodorant, or chlorine in your eyes. But you could be reacting to mould spores in the atmosphere, which cause a condition colloquially known as ‘sauna-takers lung’. ‘Mould thrives in warm, moist environments like the gym, and may be hidden beneath surfaces so we don’t know it’s there,’ says Shaw. ‘It’s also common in homes, especially if we crank up the heating and don’t open windows. As well as breathing issues, it can cause itchy eyes, eczema and asthma.’
One in five homes in the UK is affected by damp, and we’re 40 per cent more likely to suffer from asthma if we live in a damp, mouldy building, according to research by Fraunhofer Institute for Building P. Clean any mould as it appears, dry off condensation from windows and keep house plants to a minimum. If the problem is severe, a dehumidifier can help. Try the Ebac 2250e 12 Litre Dehumidifier, £169.99, ebac.com.