walkhighlands


Has this been a bad year for hay fever?

Ben DolphinOf all the traumas that summer inflicts upon a pale, midge-and-tick-attracting ginger who is forced to skulk around in the shadows for months on end, hay fever is by far the worst. But while I’ve had my fair share of horrendous seasons in the 38 years since I was diagnosed I can’t remember experiencing anything quite like I’ve experienced this year. Is it just me or is 2017 a really bad year for hay fever?

Given the individual nature of the condition I’m well aware that my own experience might not be representative, so I’ve resorted to one of my tried & tested completely unscientific Walkhighlands surveys to canvass opinion and gauge the national mood. But before we get ahead of ourselves, here’s the lowdown on the summer curse for those of you who’ve not experienced it…..yet.

What is hay fever?

It’s a type of rhinitis, an allergic reaction that causes the inflammation of the inside of the nose. This seasonal variety is caused by pollen grains, which are released by flowering plants as part of their reproductive cycle. Pollen is small enough to get up your nose, which shouldn’t be a problem as it’s entirely harmless but, for one in five of us, our bodies mistake it for a harmful substance and start making antibodies to combat it. One consequence of this is the production of a chemical called histamine, and this is what agitates your nose, throat and goodness knows what else.

Pollentastic!

Because pollen release is a natural phenomenon its timing, location and concentration varies. Very generally, the hay fever season runs from spring to autumn and encompasses three pollen types. Tree pollen from February to June, grass pollen from May to July, and weed pollen from June to September. Grass pollen is the main culprit, affecting 90% of hay fever sufferers.

Grasses are especially dominant in the upland areas of Wales, Scotland, southwest England, the Pennines and Cumbria, but that’s not to say symptoms will be at their worst in those places because pollen can travel a long way from its source. You also might just have a particular nemesis that tickles your nose more than others – broom, gorse, buddleia and rapeseed are specifically mentioned as triggers by some survey respondents. Those of us living in urban areas are especially prone, as airborne pollution is known to exacerbate allergic reactions, and while I’ve usually found slight relief around the coasts when there is an onshore breeze, hay fever nonetheless feels ubiquitous.

Symptoms

The stereotypical hay fever sufferer is someone who sneezes at the mere sight of flowers but, for most of us, sneezing is the least offensive part of a larger malaise. Symptoms might include itchy eyes, runny nose, fatigue, congestion, eczema, headaches, coughing, or if you’re supremely unlucky all of the above at the same time.

Mine feels like an itchy winter cold, but with an added sensitivity to bright light and a sneeze of such terrifying power that it likely breaks workplace ambient noise regulations. The congestion and snottiness are there for the duration of the summer and in recent seasons I have also had asthma on very warm, still evenings. But for me and many others who responded to the survey, hay fever is felt mostly in the eyes – an itchiness of such nagging intensity that rubbing them results in a peculiar sensation of joyous relief coupled with intensifying irritation. Once you start, you really cannot stop, as you find yourself locked into a weird pain-pleasure feedback loop that only an eye bath can free you from:

Two children in my class have had awful puffy eyes to the point where they have had to be sent home as they could hardly see and were in so much pain.

Red blood shot swollen they don’t look pretty. Had to send her to bed with a cold compress on both her eyes.

Treatments

The inevitability of these symptoms, year in year out, makes the onset of summer a genuinely depressing prospect and people spend years toying with different combinations of treatments and preventions.

I daren’t leave the house without these.

I’ve tried eye drops, nasal sprays, antihistamines, vaseline under the nose, keeping windows closed, changing pillow cases every night, showering as soon as I get indoors, wearing sunglasses, the list goes on. Back in the 90s we even tried eating local honey for a few years, as that was thought to alleviate symptoms over time. It did nothing for me, although other people swear by it:

I’ve been taking local honey over winter for last 4 years which made a huge difference. 

I’ve also been using rape seed oil this year for cooking and local honey so whether that’s been an aid, could well be.

 

The jury is out on whether beards and moustaches aid or hinder pollen’s progress into your nasal passages, but it does seem likely that trimming your nose hair won’t do you any favours. Other people try acupuncture, steroid injections or:

I haven’t had any hayfever symptoms for 6 years. I had a Bowen Technique for it & been free of streaming eyes/running nose & sneezing since.

I’ve always been able to keep the itchy eyes and shortness of breath under control using eye drops and an inhaler, but I put up with the congestion, runny nose and super-charged power-sneezes because they’re all preferable to crashing my car on the way home from work on account of antihistamine-induced doziness.

Hay fever from hell!

What on earth has changed this year!? I’ve never exhausted a single inhaler in a single season but this year I’ve got through almost two already. June was particularly bad, and at one point I found myself incapacitated at work after a rash of sneezing fits. Each lasted upwards of an hour and rendered me unable to do anything other than feebly prop myself up against a wall. Eventually I sneezed so hard that I refroze my thawing frozen shoulder. I slunk off to the office that afternoon feeling like I’d been in a fight, and cried into a mug of tea for the rest of the day.

That evening, I did what any sane person would do when they’re wallowing in self pity. I sought sympathy on Twitter:

Hayfever from hell!

HAYFEVER FROM HELL!

…and:

Haven’t had hay fever this bad since moving north of the border.

Buddleia – a pollen nemesis for some

The first three replies made me think there was something different in the air this year:

Same here. Worst year I can remember and I’m normally not too bad with it. Not sure why?

Same! I don’t often get it, but I’m looking for an eye and nose donor today.

Glad you’ve said that. My first summer living in Scotland & this is the worst I’ve had hayfever for many years.

I was intrigued, so I put the question out on social media, asking hay fever sufferers in Scotland how their symptoms had been so far this year. They had to choose from one of the following:

1 – Better than normal
2 – Feels the same as ever
3 – Worse than normal
4 – Worst in living memory!

Over 500 people responded from around Scotland, with 56% saying it’s worse than normal and 16% saying it’s the worst in living memory. That’s a combined 72% experiencing more severe symptoms:

I’ve hardly been bothered with hay fever at all for about 10 years but this year it’s unbelievable (Coatbridge)

Used to be quite bad, 2 decades respite, this year taking pills, streaming eyes, staying indoors…(mostly Inverness)

Grrrrrr definitely feels like something different in the air this year (Fife).

I work in a pharmacy and sales in hay fever products much higher this year than previous years (Glasgow).

Doctor said they’ve seen a massive increase in people suffering and aren’t sure why this year is worse than others (Fife).

I keep having to pop my ears and I’m getting pressure headaches… this is the worst I’ve had it (West Lothian).

The extent to which other people’s experiences mirrored my own surprised me. However, as one person sensibly observed:

Not disagreeing, but I wonder what % would say that in any random year due to consciousness of current symptoms v haziness of memories?

It’s a good point. When we’re feeling under the weather we do like to wallow in self pity and employ generous dollops of exaggeration, but how readily do any of us remember how good or bad we felt across all the many previous allergies/illnesses we’ve experienced? I’ll admit that I can’t remember them all, but the horrid ones really do stand out, not least the infamous 1995 event when I was visiting family in Surrey and had to flee back down to Portsmouth a day early for fear I might rub my eyes out of existence.

The question needs to be asked at the same time every year to get a full picture, but it never the less offers an interesting snapshot of the current hay fever season across Scotland. The worst affected areas appear to be Inverness, Moray, Edinburgh and the Borders, but people from Aberdeenshire and Fife together account for more than half of the 72% who say their hay fever is worse, and a few people who travel between Fife and elsewhere in Scotland say they’ve noticed a difference between locations:

I live in Ayrshire and haven’t really been troubled this year but visiting my mum in Fife and it’s been horrendous.

The swathe of land up through Fife, Angus, Aberdeenshire and around the Grampians into Moray is where the bulk of Scotland’s arable land is found, so there’s doubtless some link between agriculture and hay fever, although people had their own suggestions for why it might be particularly bad this year:

Worse than normal especially on days with wind and high temperature.

It’s been particularly bad on humid / rainy days.

I think the high winds haven’t helped.

In Fife, I noticed the farmers were using different spray on the fields too which didn’t help.

Rapeseed. Public Enemy No. 1 for me and many others.

Temperature, wind and humidity all determine pollen’s behaviour and movements. Stimulated by warmth and sunshine, pollen is released in the morning and tends to increase in profusion throughout the day as it rises up into the atmosphere, before falling back to earth in the evening as the air cools. Persistent rain keeps pollen on the ground, which usually offers sufferers some relief, but damp humid days can actually make things worse.

The conditions in the months running up to pollen season are a factor too. Back in 2015 I remember boasting that I was symptom-free in June and that it was the best season in years. The cool spring that year suppressed plant growth and seemed to work wonders when summer finally arrived. This year by contrast, March, April and May were all warmer and drier than average. High pressure dominated too, which meant it wasn’t particularly windy and pollen perhaps didn’t disperse as widely.

Low pressure returned in June and made it the wettest June on record, as well as being notably windy. I’m wondering whether, after a very long spell of favourable temperatures for plant growth, the much-needed downpours in June suddenly turbo-charged the whole process? I live on one farm and work on another, and both farmers have remarked about the insane quantities of grass in the fields this year. The spring has undoubtedly helped, but winter in Scotland was also significantly milder and drier than normal, which perhaps gave grasses a head start when they might otherwise have been frozen or waterlogged. The breezier days in June then blew the massive stockpiles of pollen around, and the humid overcast days that followed only served to exacerbate our reactions.

June mostly looked like this, and it coincided with my worst symptoms in decades.

That’s my attempt at an explanation, but while my season has been appalling thus far it’s in stark contrast to the 17% of respondents, many of whom are in Fife and Aberdeenshire, who have noticed an improvement in their symptoms:

Not even gone through a strip of antihistamines yet this year. I’m usually ill for months (Galloway).

Prescription packs of cetirizine mounting up as I haven’t needed them too much (Stirling).

Normally bad with it but been fine this year (Edinburgh).

Maybe they’re some of the lucky 20% of hay fever sufferers who, according to the NHS, grow out of it naturally as they get older? Lucky devils. I’m still waiting! Or perhaps they’re experiencing a natural fluctuation in symptom severity on an individual level from year to year? Who knows. Sadly, for every person enjoying relief for the first time in decades there seems to be someone else experiencing it for the very first time:

I am suffering from hay fever for the 1st time ever!!! (Will b 39 on my birthday!!!) (Aberdeen).

First year I have been afflicted! Driving me crazy, even the non drowsy antihistamines make me sleepy.

On behalf of my mum who has never suffered with hayfever before (she’s in her 60s) its a 4 (Aberdeenshire).

For someone who has never had it before, by definition this year is their worst in living memory. But is it really worse than normal for the 56%? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. One thing is certain though, with the number of people suffering hay fever in the UK projected to double by 2030, with each passing year there will be more people qualified to offer their opinion on the matter. Never experienced hay fever? Hmm. Watch this space!




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