Hay fever? No thanks

Anyone who suffers from hay fever knows just how miserable it can be. And while many of us associate it with spring, it’s actually a condition which affects some people all year round.

Hayfever - articleHay fever is an allergy to pollens in the air. It gained its name from the cold-like illness farm workers got from working in the corn fields, when grass pollens and wild flower pollens were at their peak.

But for some people it can actually be worse in the winter at times of low air pressure when allergens, pollution and particulates in the air hug the ground, upsetting our respiratory systems.

Correctly called Seasonal Allergic Rhinitis, hay fever is an improper immune response to pollen, cat dander, household chemicals, or mould and mildew, which causes the body to think these things are invading bacteria and to act accordingly.

When you breathe in pollens (ragweed , rape and mugwort are particular culprits) the immune system hoovers up some of the pollen. The immune system then makes IgE antibodies which attach themselves to mast cells. Your immune system is now primed and ready to spring into action the next time you breathe in that pollen.

And when this does happen, your immune system jumps up and down yelling “You are pollen”, and releases a load of compounds known as chemical messengers, including histamine.

These chemical messengers tell your immune system to switch on its destruction and removal protocol, which includes swelling nasal membranes and runny nose and eyes, to wash away the irritant, coughing, mucous production and all the lovely symptoms you associate with hay fever.

No one really knows why the body gets so excited about pollen. There is a theory that allergies and autoimmune disease, which are less prevalent in primitive cultures, are a result of our immune systems not having enough to do.

If you have young children, it’s a very good idea to make sure they don’t live in too sterile an environment. Mud pies are good for the immune system. Bleach….not so much.

Why am I sneezing in March and wheezing in November?

As I’ve mentioned, there’s really no such thing as a hay fever season. There are lots of plants that cause allergic rhinitis.

Tree pollens begin in January with hazel and go on till July when the lime tree flowers.

Agricultural pollens start in March and are a problem till mid June, and a variety of grasses (including wheat etc) pollinate between April and the end of August.

Then from the end of August until the end of November you run the risk of fungus, mould and mildew spores. How badly you suffer depends on which spore or pollen upsets you most and how intense the concentrations of those triggers are.

How can I tackle hay fever?

Limiting exposure at the worst times is important. Once you set off an immune response damping it down can be difficult.

You may have found that once your hay fever is really bad antihistamines don’t seem to work. This is because once the histamine is out there it’s difficult to put it back in the box.

Antihistamines need to be taken regularly and ideally before your symptoms start.

However antihistamines can have side effects. Some make you drowsy, not every one works for every person and, as antihistamines reduce swelling they are linked to erectile dysfunction in men. They may also be linked to a reduction in sexual arousal in women (who also have erectile tissue). So if you are a hay fever sufferer and don’t want to fall asleep or have your sex life go down the pan, don’t panic. There are plenty of other remedies out there…

Natural alternatives

chamomile tea served in a clear cupDiet. Some people find that if they go on a radical anti-allergen diet early in the year, cutting out grains, dairy foods, nightshades (potatoes, tomatoes, red and green peppers, chilies) they do not suffer the immune onslaught of late spring and early summer. There’s a theory that gut flora has a strong effect on our immune system and that if we remove other irritants we can regulate the response that happens when allergens pop up.

Common sense. We’ve all seen pictures of people in countries like China and Korea wearing surgical masks in the street. This is not to prevent inhalation of poisons but rather to reduce pollen inhalation. It looks a bit unusual but it helps. However, there are other things you can try:

  • Keep doors and windows closed at the peak of the season, especially first thing in the morning on warm sunny days when pollen is being released.
  • Shower when you get home to remove pollen from hair and skin.
  • Vacuum your house with a HEPA filter model cleaner. This will remove allergens from the environment.
  • Damp dust. This removes allergens in dust more effectively than dry dusting.
  • Use a gel nasal spray to catch the pollen before it hits your mucous membranes and causes trouble.
  • Saline rinses can remove pollen from the nasal membranes. It’s not that pleasant to do but it is very effective. If you do yoga you may have heard of a neti pot. These help you to sniff the saline into your nose.
  • Smear Vaseline or a natural salve around your nostrils to catch pollen before it’s breathed in.

Bear in mind that if you’re the one with hay fever, you probably shouldn’t be doing the hoovering in your allergy season. Always a silver lining, eh?

Herbs. When your symptoms are at their worst, only a strong herb like Ephedra sinica will work. Ephedra contains ephedrine, pseudo ephedrine and other natural antihistamines, and for this reason is legally regulated and only available from a qualified herbalist. However, if you start early there are lots of other options. Some people swear by homeopathic pollen. I am not a homeopath so can’t vouch for this, but I do know that lots of herbs work really well:

  • Nettle. The humble nettle contains antihistamines and virtually every neurotransmitter the body needs to work at its best. The spring shoots of the nettle are the most effective. Eat in a stew or make into a tea. This herb contains loads of iron and will benefit you in a myriad of ways.
  • Corn poppy. Juliette de Bairacli Levy, a highly regarded English herbalist, recommends taking the flowers, leaves and buds of the corn poppy and making a strong decoction. This is done by boiling them in water for a few minutes. You then drink a wineglass full every hour until the symptoms have abated. This method was commonly used by agricultural labourers in the summer. I have tried it and it’s a little like magic.
  • Baical skullcap. This is a Chinese herb that contains natural antihistmaines and has a symptomatic effect on hay fever. It also contains constituents which help to normalise the effect of the immune system so it is less likely to get over excited.
  • Chamomile. This gentle herb has the most profoundly calming effect on the mucous membranes. Use the tea as a herbal steam to soothe your eyes and the upset mucous membranes of your nose and throat. Drink it as a tea to settle and calm your system. Wash your face with it to ease the red, hotness an allergy can bring.
  • Chickweed. A brilliant calming herb for allergies. Used topically and drunk as a tea it can reduce or banish itching completely. Internally it has a supportive and cleansing effect, helping the lymphatic system to clear away debris, and eaten as a salad vegetable it is a nutritious addition to your diet that brings many natural vitamins and minerals.

A medical herbalist will probably mix you something a little more complex (possibly brown and strange tasting) to help your symptoms. However, if you start early in the year, with a little self care, some changes in diet and your cleaning habits, and the right herbs from your herbalist, you could have your best summer yet.

Katherine Bellchambers-Wilson

About Katherine Bellchambers-Wilson

Passionate about looking good and feeling great, I’m a BSc qualified herbalist who won’t make you give up your chocolate, coffee or alcohol (unless you have a stomach ulcer and then only for a while). I believe a little of what you fancy does you good and that all work and no play just spoils a perfectly good Sunday. Herbal medicine harnesses the power of plants to help nudge your body into balance so you can get on with doing what’s important. You can find me through my website www.nottingham-herbalist.co.uk. BSc MNIMH