Seasonal Allergies

by Adam Gould
Seasonal Allergies

An itchy, runny nose. Red eyes. Wheezing, sneezing and angry, blotchy skin. Its not a good look. But these are all symptoms that affect a surprisingly large number of us – in other words, people with allergies.

According to the NHS, at least one in four people in the UK has one or more allergies at some point. And anyone – even the healthiest among us can be affected, from babies to centenarians.  

What we dont know is exactly why some people develop allergies while others dont. There could be a genetic link, since some types of allergies can often run in families (this is called atopy). Scientists have even tried to pin allergy susceptibility down to specific genes, with one study identifying no fewer than 132 genes that may be involved with the allergy process.

What causes allergies?

Thankfully, we do know a lot more about how allergies develop. And at the centre of everything is the immune system:

• Your immune system protects against infection from viruses, bacteria and other nasty organisms – it recognises invaders, hunts them down, and destroys them.

If you have an allergy, your immune system recognises something harmless as being a threat and acts to destroy it. These harmless substances are called allergens.

The process that starts an allergy is called sensitisation, and it can happen the first time you come into contact with an allergen or at any time, even if youve been exposed to the allergen for years.

Once sensitised to an allergen your immune system reacts the next time youre exposed to it. This sets off a chain of events, one of which is the release of a chemical called histamine. When released into your system histamine causes a range of allergy symptoms, including itching, sneezing, wheezing and skin rashes.

Did you know? A weak immune system can leave you more susceptible to infections. But allergies are the result of your immune system reacting strongly to an allergen. So if you have the sniffles all the time it may not be a sign that your immune system is below par in fact, you could argue its quite the opposite.

Common allergies

There are many different allergens but the ones that cause most allergic reactions include pollen, dust mites, moulds, pet dander (particles of skin shed by animals with fur or feathers), insect venom, medicines and foods. These cause a range of allergies, including:

Allergic rhinitis   There are two types - seasonal (hayfever) and perennial, which affects you all year round (cold-like and itchy nasal symptoms).

Asthma   Breathlessness, wheezing and a tight chest caused by inhaling allergens (though other things can trigger asthma too).

Eczema   When skin comes into contact with an allergen it becomes itchy, dry, cracked and sore.

Urticaria   Also known as hives (itchy, raised red patches or spots).

Allergic conjunctivitis   Watery, itchy, sore and puffy eyes that feel hot and gritty.

Food allergy   Reactions to foods including fish, shellfish, nuts, milk and eggs causing rashes, wheezing and itching (not to be confused with food intolerance, which typically triggers digestive discomfort and migraine). Food allergies can be serious and even life threatening (see When allergies get serious, below).

Did you know? Allergies are on the rise. We dont know exactly why, but one theory is that todays environments are so clean and free of germs (relatively speaking), our immune systems have less to deal with and start reacting to harmless substances instead. This is backed by studies suggesting children who spend their early years on a farm have fewer allergies later.

All that pollen's making me sneeze

Of course its no coincidence were talking about allergies right now, just as summer is approaching. Hay fever is a common allergy, with more than 45,000 people seeing their GP with symptoms a week during peak pollen season in England alone. But hay fever doesnt just happen in the spring and summer months. Its triggered more than 30 types of tree, grass and weed pollens, some of which can be released as early as January and as late as September:

Tree pollen     This is usually being released in late March and continues to mid-May, though alder, hazel and yew pollens can sometimes be released in January while pine and lime pollens can continue through July.

Grass pollen   The grass pollen season typically runs from mid-May to July, but it has been known to start early in May and last until September.

Weed pollen   Plants like rape seed, plantain, nettle, dock and mugwort start releasing pollen at the end of June and continue until September (though the season can last longer).

If youre truly unfortunate you could be allergic to several types of pollen and sneeze your way from winter through spring and summer and on to autumn.  

Did you know? Flower pollen is relatively heavy and sticky, which means it doesnt usually become airborne and cause hay fever symptoms. Tree, grass and weed pollens are lighter, so theyre more likely to linger in the air and reach your eyes, nose and mouth.

Summer is also less fun for anyone whos allergic to bug bites (imagine trying to relax at a picnic or barbeque with legions of angry wasps buzzing around if youre allergic to wasp venom). Even staying indoors isnt an option if you react to dust mites (though to be fair thats a problem all year round, not just during the summer).

Did you know? Bee and wasp venoms contain different allergens (phospholipase A2 and melittin in bee venom and antigen 5 in wasp venom, in case you were asking). Thankfully, scientists say those who are allergic to one type are rarely allergic to the other.

When allergy gets serious

Any allergy can make life miserable, but some people have far bigger problems. A severe allergic reaction often caused by insect bites or stings, foods or medicines is called anaphylaxis.

With anaphylaxis symptoms start suddenly, get worse very quickly and can be very severe. These include breathing difficulties, lightheadedness or fainting, rapid heartbeat, clammy skin, anxiety and losing consciousness. Since it can be potentially life threatening, anaphylaxis is classed as a medical emergency.

Someone who has anaphylaxis will usually wear a medical emergency bracelet and carry an adrenalin pen (an EpiPen, for example). If you ever see someone going into an anaphylactic shock, call 999 immediately. You may also have to help them administer their adrenalin shot just dont go all Pulp Fiction and try stabbing the needle into their heart a leg, arm or any other muscle will do just fine! 

Did you know? According to Patient UK, half a million people in the UK have had an anaphylactic reaction to venom from bees or wasps, while almost a quarter of a million under-45s have had anaphylaxis caused by nuts.

How to get some relief

Avoiding your particular allergen is undoubtedly the best way to keep allergy symptoms under control. But its not always practical. Thankfully modern medicine has a few tricks up its sleeve to help allergy sufferers live normally. Antihistamine lotions and creams for skin reactions, antihistamine nasal sprays and eye drops for nose and eye symptoms, and decongestants to help unblock a blocked nose.

If you don't get on with antihistamines for whatever reason, natural remedies such as bromelain, nettle and quercetin can be effective for some people. A a timely immune-boosting shot of high strength vitamin C has also been identified as a safe, natural allergy therapy. 

However, a lesser known influence on your allergic response is gut health, because your gut microbiota supports your immune system. Theres even evidence to suggest taking probiotic supplements to keep your gut flora healthy can help relieve allergies and help prevent them. A review of atopic dermatitis studies has also found arguments to support using probiotics for eczema.   

Fancy trying a probiotic? Our Bio Cultures Complex Advanced Multi-Strain Probiotic has 45 billion CFUs from 17 probiotic strains and is fortified with prebiotics plus its suitable for adults and children.

Other helpful supplements include a b-vitamin complex to support your immune system and health in general. Omega 3 fish oils are another good option, with a study suggesting diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin C could reduce the risk of hay fever. And lets not forget vitamin D3: research claims it may improve asthma symptoms in older people with low vitamin D levels. It's also worth maintaining your levels of magnesium and zinc, both of which have key roles in keeping your immune system healthy.

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by Adam Gould