ACHHOOOO! ‘tis the season to be sneezing folks. But why does the summer cause some of us to have red eyes, a runny nose and constantly sneeze? Allergies can vary from mildly irritating to life threatening. The most common allergy that most people experience is hay fever, or its medical term, Allergic Rhinitis. During this article, we’ll talk about what Allergic Rhinitis is, why only some people get it and how it’s treated.
So, you wake up one morning ready to embrace the beautiful sunny day outside but about half an hour later you find that your eyes are watering so much that you can barely see, you’re sneezing so often your head feels like it might pop and your chest feels tight. What’s happening?
The interesting thing about hay fever is that it can appear and disappear suddenly. Some people have to deal with it for years, whilst others only occasionally get it or are fortunate enough to have never had it. Others simply grow out of it.
Before we talk about what happens to those with hay fever, let’s first define what an allergy actually is. The dictionary definition of an allergy is ‘a damaging immune response by the body to a substance, especially pollen, fur, a particular food, or dust, to which it has become hypersensitive.’ What this basically means is that your body thinks that normal day-to-day substances that we encounter are pathogens like a virus or bacteria so it decides to attack it like you would if you had a cold.
So what actually happens during an episode of hay fever and why do we only get it during the summer months? Hay fever is essentially an allergy to pollen. As we inhale pollen, normally our body doesn’t react to it and we can continue with our day-to-day lives. Those with hay fever – their body sees the pollen as dangerous and creates an immune response against it. This is what creates the hay fever symptoms of sneezing, a tight chest, watery eyes and even occasional rashes. There are actually different subtypes of hay fever depending on which pollen you’re allergic to, for instance tree pollen or grass pollen. Some people may get hay fever during the early summer months, whilst others slightly later, depending on when that particular tree, flower or grass is pollinating.
The next question is – why do only some people get hay fever whilst others don’t? The truth is: we still don’t know! Researchers are looking into why some people have more sensitive immune systems than others and whether or not it’s due to being exposed to something in the environment that causes hay fever later on.
So how do we treat hay fever? We now know that the reason people feel bad during hay fever season is due to their immune systems going slightly crazy – therefore there are three ways of treating those with hay fever:
The first treatment is an obvious one – it’s simply treating the symptoms and trying to moderate the increased immune response. Taking antihistamines to decrease the cold like symptoms usually does this. Histamine is a powerful chemical the body releases when creating an immune response against pollen, so by decreasing histamine levels, you tend to get a decrease in hay fever effects. Usually this method is used for mild to moderate hay fever sufferers and can be taken as a pill or spray. Eye drops can be used to stop eye irritation.
The second treatment is usually used if the first doesn’t work. The reason for this is because it involves immunosuppression. What this means is that by taking a drug class called steroids, you decrease your immune system. Steroids can have some nasty side effects and lowering your immune system can increase the risk of getting an infection, so unless your quality of life is seriously affected by hay fever, this treatment option is usually a last resort.
Our last and final treatment for hay fever is probably the most exciting. This is a relatively new treatment option that can be used for many allergies and not just Allergic Rhinitis. It’s called Immunotherapy. Immunotherapy basically works like a vaccine. During what is called the ‘buildup’ phase, the allergy sufferer is injected a few times a week with very small amounts of the allergen (for example pollen), which increases in strength every week. This goes on for three to six months. After that, a maintenance dose is given every two to four weeks. Essentially what Immunotherapy attempts to do is to slowly train your body to realize that the allergen is harmless and an immune response against it isn’t needed.
This week’s advice: Allergies can vary from mildly annoying to extremely disabling. Either way, don’t suffer in silence – ask your doctor which treatment option would be best for you.
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