GETTING medical advice to control your summer sniffles is vital, warn experts
For millions of hay fever sufferers the summer months can spell misery in the form of constant sneezing, a blocked or runny nose and itchy, swollen eyes.
Yet new research has revealed that the debilitating condition which affects 15 million people in the UK could actually be life-threatening.
The report called One Airway, One Disease, which is supported by charity Allergy UK in partnership with pharmaceutical firm Meda Pharma, warns that hay fever sufferers whose symptoms are not controlled are up to three times more likely to develop asthma.
It also reveals that more than 50,000 hay fever sufferers are being admitted to hospital every year after suffering an asthma attack.
Asthma affects at least 5.4 million people in the UK, roughly one in 12 adults and one in 11 children. The long-term inflammatory condition causes coughing, wheezing and breathlessness. It can also be fatal.
Last week a report by the Royal College of Physicians revealed that the UK has one of the highest asthma death rates in the Western world and the number of fatalities is rising rapidly. It said too many GPs were prescribing the wrong medication to keep costs down.
Asthma and hay fever are closely related. Studies show that up to 80 per cent of those with asthma also have hay fever. Study authors warn that GPs are failing to treat both conditions together and sufferers tend to “self treat” for years, spending hundreds of pounds on over-the-counter products without proper medical advice.
“Allergic rhinitis is the root cause of thousands of asthma attacks every year but often neither the health service nor patients are tackling these conditions in parallel,” says consultant paediatric allergist Dr Adam Fox.
“The effective management of ‘serious’ hay fever could significantly reduce the number of people hospitalised with asthma attacks and reduce the substantial financial burden this places on the NHS.”
The most commonly-purchased treatments for hay fever are oral antihistamines which are available over the counter in pharmacies without a GP prescription.
This type of medication is only recommended for those suffering mild symptoms. “Too many people are buying their treatment without expert advice from a GP or pharmacist,” allergy specialist Dr Dermot Ryan says.
“This is a key contributor to the widespread problem of uncontrolled hay fever symptoms which, for people with severe hay fever, can be very serious when asthma comes into play.”
Increasing numbers are reported to be developing hay fever symptoms, with some studies indicating that prevalence rates of the condition may have almost doubled in the last three decades.
Dr Jean Emberlin, scientific director of Allergy UK, says evidence indicates the overall prevalence of hay fever has at least doubled over the past 30 years.
“Reasons for this may include increased awareness among hay fever sufferers and health care professionals leading to improved identification and recording of cases,” she says.
She also points out that obsessive standards of cleanliness mean our immune systems mistakenly identify pollen as a threat known as the “hygiene hypothesis”.
“This theory suggests that as a result of cleaner living the population is less exposed to endotoxins in early life, leading to a greater tendency for allergies to develop,” she says.
“Furthermore we are experiencing longer and more severe pollen seasons as a result of climate change.”
This year’s hay fever season started in the third week of March with a high birch tree pollen load affecting around a quarter of sufferers. The severity of birch seasons tends to alternate between high and low pollen production and this year it is high.
“Grass pollen seasons are lasting longer and will start earlier than last year, beginning in the last week of May in some areas,” Professor Emberlin adds.
“The onset of the season will be gradual due to the warm weather, with small amounts of grass pollen in the air for several weeks.
“The severity is likely to be high but a lot depends on summer weather for pollen dispersal.”