The sun is out and it’s time to slip on the shades, slap on the sun cream and get outside. But if you’re one of the UK’s 18 million hay fever sufferers, you may feel that summer should come with a health warning.

There are plenty of ways to keep those seasonal symptoms in check, as Vitality’s Head of Clinical Services, GP Dr Dawn Richards, explains…

What exactly is hay fever?

Hay fever is an allergy to pollen. With allergies, the immune system reacts to a harmless substance and responds by releasing chemicals such as histamine. It’s these chemicals, rather than the pollen itself, that cause the unpleasant symptoms. The most common trigger is grass pollen, around from May to July, but it’s possible to be allergic to more than one type, including tree pollens, which begin in March, and weed pollens, which are released in late summer and early autumn.

Can I suddenly get it as an adult?

Although most people’s hay fever begins in childhood, you can get it for the first time as an adult. Symptoms may also vary year to year according to the changing weather and where you live. For instance, if you move to a new area, you may come into contact with a different type of pollen. It doesn’t necessarily follow that symptoms are worse in the countryside either, as pollutants such as car fumes can make them worse.

How do I know it’s hay fever and not a cold?

Typical hay fever symptoms include repeated sneezing, a runny, itchy nose and red, watery eyes, which are similar to those of a cold. The difference is that hay fever symptoms tend to be prolonged and get worse when you’re outside, especially on hot, dry, windy days when the pollen count is probably high. You’ll also notice them around the same time each year. You’re more likely to have hay fever if you suffer from other allergies such as asthma or eczema, or if allergies run in your family.

I think I have hay fever. What should I do?

Head off to your pharmacy. Antihistamines are great at stopping sneezing, itching and eye irritation. If you need to be alert, ask your pharmacist for one that won’t make you drowsy. Antihistamines don’t always work well for a blocked nose, so you could try a corticosteroid nasal spray, which combats inflammation. It can take a couple of weeks to have an effect, so you could use a decongestant spray in the meantime. However, it’s important you don’t use a decongestant for longer than seven days as this can cause rebound congestion, making symptoms worse in the long-term. If your only symptom is eye irritation, antihistamine or sodium cromoglicate eye drops may be sufficient.

Before you take any medication, check it’s suitable for you. This is particularly important for pregnant women, children and people who are taking other medication.

Why do so many people complain that their hay fever remedies don’t work?

Many people don’t take their medication correctly. In 2014, Allergy UK found that only 14 per cent of people using a steroid nasal spray were actually using it properly. Make sure you tip your head forward rather than back, look down, insert the nozzle and spray towards the outside of your nose. Many people also only take their hay fever treatment when they get symptoms, but for best results you need to start taking it a couple of weeks before your symptoms usually begin and consistently throughout the season.

Is there anything else I can do?

Check the Met Office pollen forecast for your local pollen count, and when it’s high, try to stay indoors with the windows shut. If you need to go out, wear wraparound sunglasses to protect your eyes and put a slick of barrier balm such as petroleum jelly around the edges of your nostrils to trap the pollen and prevent it from entering your nose. A selection of barrier balms and sprays are now available from pharmacies. Try to keep your home as pollen-free as possible by shutting windows during peak pollen times (generally 8-10am and 5-7pm), drying washing indoors, and changing your clothes by the front door when you come home then showering right away.

When should you see your GP?

If over-the-counter remedies aren’t working for you, or if hay fever causes you to wheeze or makes your asthma worse, see your GP who can prescribe different medication. If it’s severe and doesn’t respond to the usual treatment, he or she may refer you to an allergy specialist for immunotherapy, a treatment designed to gradually desensitise you to pollen. If you’re concerned about a child or teen who’s taking exams, your GP may be able to prescribe treatment that will keep symptoms at bay during the crucial time.

For more advice, visit Allergy UK.

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