Stuffy nose, watery eyes, itchy throat… when it comes to getting out and enjoying the good weather during the summer months, being one of the unlucky 18 million people in the UK who suffer from hay fever is never fun.
Allergies can seemingly appear overnight, and because allergy to pollen can be cyclical, it could suddenly hit you as an adult, even if you never suffered as a child. The irritating symptoms – which are often confused with those of the common cold – occur when the body comes into contact with an allergen and the immune system is kicked into overdrive.
Although it’s easily remedied with the right antihistamines, if you’re a first-time sufferer, it doesn’t help that there’s a lot of misinformation out there about how you should treat, or prevent, an allergy attack.
We asked Dr Jean Emberlin, a pollen expert speaking on behalf of Opticrom (opticrom.co.uk), to help debunk five of the most common misconceptions.
1. Flowers cause allergies
Lots of people wrongly associate hay fever with colourful blooms, but as Dr Emberlin says, “Showy flowers usually have insect dispersed pollen, which is sticky and heavy and is carried between the flowers by insects, so it does not get carried in the air.”
The pollen most likely to cause an allergy is actually the airborne type, from grass, weeds and trees, such as birch and oak. “These types of pollen are small and light and are produced in vast numbers,” notes Emberlin. “They can either be breathed in or enter through the eyes, triggering the allergic reactions of hay fever.
“The pollen from flowers is not usually a major trigger for hay fever, unless a person is exposed to flowers a lot, such as working in a florist shop.”
2. Hay fever is caused by hay
“Hay is cut dried grass,” says Emberlin, “and while it may contain grass pollen grains and can trigger hay fever, it is certainly not the main cause. The name ‘hay fever’ may have come about because the allergy peaks in the summer months when grasses flower and hay is made.”
3. Rain can clear pollen
There is some truth to this claim, because rain will temporarily clear pollen from the air, but often before a downpour there is an increase in wind gusts and downdraughts of air.
“The gusts can lift deposited pollen from surfaces and the downdraughts can bring pollen down from higher levels in the air where it has been lifted by convection currents,” says Emberlin. “Both of these factors can increase the pollen count, leading to symptoms just before or as the rain starts.”
Stormy weather can also make the particles easier to inhale. “During the rain fall, grass pollen grains can burst under osmotic pressure, releasing minute starch particles held within them that contain allergen,” says Jean. “This can lead to breathing problems in asthma sufferers who are allergic to grass allergens.”
4. Rubbing Vaseline around my nose will cure my hay fever
“Think of your nose like a chimney with smoke going up it,” says Emberlin. “Some of the smoke might cling to the outside of the chimney like soot, but most of the smoke will still make its way upwards.”
She explains that the same is true with your nose: “You put a bit of Vaseline around the outside and it might catch a few grains, but most of the pollen is still going to go up your nose.
“I don’t think lubricating the nostril helps at all – other than easing some of the soreness.”
5. Honey can cure my hay fever
Many people swear that spooning a teaspoon of local honey on your porridge each day, immunises you against pollen and helps alleviate hay fever symptoms. So is it true?
“I’m not saying that it doesn’t work,” says Emberlin, “but the problem is that bees visit plants which have big, colourful flowers to collect pollen – rather than the type of plants that cause hay fever, like grasses and trees. It’s very difficult to see how the honey can work.
“People might say flowers get covered in grass pollen, from a honey marketing point of view, but I’ve never seen a single grass pollen grain in honey. Even if there were a few, the amount would be so microscopically tiny, it wouldn’t have any effect.
“The nutrients in honey might help the immune system, and it certainly wouldn’t do harm to eat honey from the local area, but I’m afraid it’s not going to cure your hay fever.”