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Pollen allergy and hay fever

Updated: February 2020

Hay fever, which is commonly referred to as a pollen allergy, is an allergic reaction to certain allergens, mostly grass pollen, and is referred to medically as allergic rhinitis.

Normally a healthy immune system does not acknowledge pollen in the air. However, in the case of a pollen allergy, these allergens irritate the mucous membranes.

This overreaction by the immune system often starts suddenly and can take place at different times of the year, depending on the flowering period of particular plants.

Causes: what triggers hay fever?

Hay fever is triggered by allergens that the affected person is allergic to, i.e. pollen. Grass pollen is one of the most common triggers of hay fever. However, tree, herbal and flower pollen also can lead to an allergic reaction.

Hay fever is triggered by contact with a particular allergen – pollen of a particular plant.

Symptoms of pollen allergy (hay fever)

Typical symptoms of hay fever are itchy eyes and sneezing, a runny nose and laboured breathing. The respiratory muscles contract and the bronchial mucosa may swell due to inflammation. It also can cause a sore throat or difficulty swallowing.

Therapy and treatment for hay fever

Hay fever therapy comprises a three-pillar approach.

The easiest way to reduce discomfort is to avoid the triggering allergens. You can keep the windows closed at the appropriate time of year and be sure to wash the pollen out of long hair and clothing.

If you have to spend time outdoors, allergy therapeutics may be administered. Within this context, antihistamines provided as eye drops or a nasal spray are a popular course of treatment.

Immunotherapy is used in order to get the pollen allergy under control in the long term. This treatment is also referred to as hyposensitisation and often takes place over several years. This method of treatment is particularly well-suited if it is known exactly which pollen causes the hay fever.

Diagnosis

Diagnosis often raises the question of whether the child is actually experiencing a cold, hay fever or any other allergy. It is typical for hay fever to start suddenly, whereas a cold often starts with a headache or sore throat. Colds last for about 7–9 days, whereas the symptoms of hay fever can last much longer and usually return at the same time each year.

Ailments associated with a pollen allergy are also dependent on the location and weather. A pollen allergy is much more noticeable outdoors; pollen dust enters the house on clothing or through open windows. Unlike with a cold, the nasal secretion does not change its colour, it remains clear and watery.

Precise diagnosis requires a blood test.
If the suspicion of an allergy is confirmed, a skin test is carried out. For this, allergens are dissolved in water and brought into contact with the skin. This determines which pollen the affected person is allergic to.

Treatment

Acute symptoms of hay fever can be treated with anti-allergy or anti-inflammatory medication.

Anti-allergy medication, referred to as antihistamines, triggers a significant and rapid relief of the ailment in the case of acute pollen allergy. However, these also can be associated with side effects such as tiredness.

Anti-inflammatory medication, such as cortisone-containing nasal sprays, are much slower acting; their effect only becomes apparent after a few days.

Prevention

Prevention is better than cure. Therefore, the allergens should be avoided as much as possible. You can use a pollen calendar and meteorological service pollen alerts to plan the time you spend outdoors. Only ventilate intermittently. In cities, the pollen concentration in the air is highest in the evening.