The Hay Fever Handbook
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.
Wind and Wet
While the pollen season kicks off at about the same time every year, the actual levels of the allergenic stuff in the air change with the weather. This means that you won’t react the same way every year – or even every day.
Pollen levels are highest on warm, dry, breezy days when the wind easily carries small, light grains away from the plant and into your nose. On colder, wet and humid days, the moisture clings to the grains and they are more likely to remain on the ground. When this moisture evaporates, the pollen again becomes airborne.
Hay fever can start before buds even appear in your neighborhood. “Tree pollen often travels hundreds of miles,” says Dr. Paul Keith, an allergist and associate professor at McMaster University.
If you have seasonal allergic rhinitis triggered by molds, the peak months are July and August, though the season endures much longer. “Mold comes out when the snow melts and stays until fall,” says Keith.
Molds love moisture and can live in damp areas inside your house year-round. Molds are fungi, and reproduce by sending spores, which are tiny seeds. Like pollen, spores become airborne and can trigger allergies.
Sex and the Single Tree
For those behind in their botany, pollen is the male fertilizing agent of plants and grasses. As nature shows off in spring with blooming trees and flowers, species with large pollen grains rely on insects like bees to distribute their genetic material to mates. But plants with tiny grains of pollen cast it to the wind, relying on the breeze to transport their seed; these are the allergy culprits.
Pollen- and Mold-Proofing
While you can’t avoid pollen and mold altogether in spring, you can make life much more bearable by taking precautions inside and outside the home.
• First, DON’T open those windows! That lovely spring breeze will carry allergens inside. Once it’s warm indoors, use an air conditioner and make sure it is draining properly to avoid mould growth.
• DON’T hang out your laundry. The smell may be fresh, but pollen will be your bedfellow.
• DON’T dust and sweep when cleaning. Instead, wipe surfaces with a damp cloth and mop with water.
• DO use a vacuum with a certified HEPA filter to remove allergens from the air rather than blowing them around.
• If you’re not dander allergic and keep a dog or cat, DON’T cuddle your pet in peak pollination seasons. The animal’s fur may be laden with pollen.
• DO wash your exposed skin when you come inside, and take a shower to rinse pollen from your skin and hair before heading to bed.
• DO keep your home dry to discourage mold growth. Maintain your roof to ensure your home’s structure doesn’t get wet and stay wet.
• DO clear your eaves troughs of decaying leaves and twigs.
• DO fix that leaky tap and other sources of mold-welcoming moisture.
Next: How to Manage and Enjoy Spring Outdoors