Hay fever – an overview
Hay fever is the most common allergy in the Western world, with the number of cases rising annually. In the last 20 years its incidence has actually tripled, which is almost unprecedented for a health disorder. Although studies suggest that hay fever is present in 20 per cent of the population in Western societies, the true figure could be much higher as many individuals attribute their symptoms to a persistent summer cold. Experts predict the following for the future of hay fever:
• The number of cases will carry on climbing.
• It will continue to emerge in people who have never before suffered from it.
Currently, in the West, it appears that up to 40 per cent of young adolescents suffer the misery of hay fever, as a result of which far too many important school days are lost. Sadly, affected youngsters may not later reach their full potential in their working lives, often causing frustration, low self-esteem and a poorer financial and social status than might otherwise have been. Where adults are concerned, the cost to the exchequer in lost days at work is significant, which is one reason why a great deal of research into hay fever treatments is now under way.
The condition can be described in brief as an immune system reaction (the immune system is the body’s natural defence mechanism) to a particular substance – something it mistakenly identifies as an invading force. In hay fever, forms of plant life are recognized as invaders – the pollen from trees, plants, weeds and grasses, together with the fungal spores from different types of mould.
The purpose of the immune system is to attack and destroy invaders. In hay fever, it attempts to fight off a mistakenly identified invader by producing symptoms that mainly affect the nose, sinuses, throat and eyes. The intensity of symptoms can vary from month to month, depending upon the amount of pollen and fungal spores in the air.
Moreover, the type of symptoms can differ from region to region, the determinant factors being the type of allergens circulating in the air at the time and to which substances the individual is allergic. Any substance that is identified by the immune system as an invader is called an allergen.
The term hay fever is, to some extent, misleading. Although hay is produced from grass, many other plant substances can cause an adverse immune reaction in a susceptible person. The specific reference to hay is thought to have arisen after early descriptions of sneezing and a streaming nose and eyes while harvesting hay in the field. In fact, it is during the ‘haying’ season – which generally runs from late May until the end of June – that most plants release their pollen into the air, therefore the allergy reaches its peak during that period.
Hay fever can greatly impact upon a person’s general health and overall quality of life. For instance, having a picnic in the countryside on a warm spring day is for most people a pleasurable experience, but someone with hay fever will try to avoid this, particularly when the pollen count is high. Similarly, physical activities such as cycling along tree-lined avenues or playing football on the village green are likely also to be avoided, which is a great shame. Where general health is concerned, it must be said that hay fever can lead to other disorders such as sinusitis, eczema and asthma.
If you are exhibiting the typical symptoms of hay fever but don’t know whether it’s actually a cold (which is caused by a viral infection) the timing of your sniffles and sneezes should provide a good clue. As a rule, colds only last for a week or two and usually attack during the cooler months, whereas hay fever symptoms generally last longer and are more likely to be present during the spring and early summer. Moreover, hay fever symptoms often come and go, depending upon the levels of pollen in the air.
Hay fever cannot, as yet, be cured, but the symptoms can be controlled. The condition also tends to be far less of a problem as the years go by, peaking during adolescence to mid-twenties and improving or even disappearing as a person reaches their mid-forties. Plenty of other people find, however, that the culprit allergen(s) continues to affect them for a prolonged length of time. Indeed, it may always present symptoms – especially in years when the pollen and mould counts are elevated. Fortunately, the various treatments and self-help measures can generally reduce the symptoms and allow you to get on with your life.
A minor condition?
People who don’t suffer from hay fever may view it as a slightly inconvenient runny nose. For those who do have it, however, the myriad symptoms can make springtime and early summer cripplingly miserable. It is therefore a great deal more than a ‘slight’ inconvenience, affecting quality of life, causing problems at work and at home and interfering with leisure-time activities. Moreover, when the millions spent on hay fever medications and the cost of lost work days are taken into account, the condition is, without doubt, anything but minor.
You may be interested to know that allergic rhinitis – the correct medical term for hay fever – has recently been formally classified as a ‘major chronic respiratory disease’, which at last adds weight to the condition.