Experts say you should plan your hay fever treatment a month before your symptoms begin. So start our eight-step plan now to stay symptom-free

Hay fever

Hay fever costs the UK over £7 billion a year in treatments, appointments and time off work ©iStock

Who knew?

In the last three decades, the number of people affected by hay fever has trebled. There are now 18 million sufferers in the UK, and even if we don’t have the allergy ourselves, 36% of us live with someone who does, according to the charity Allergy UK.

Experts say you should plan your hay fever treatment a month before your symptoms begin. So start our eight-step plan now to stay symptom-free

Step one Check your diary

Start by looking at the pollen table below and matching it to the time of year that you normally get hay fever symptoms.

For example, if you’re usually snuffly from March onwards, you’re probably allergic to birch pollen. If you only get itchy eyes from May to August, then you could just be allergic to grass pollen.

Once you’ve identified your earliest trigger, pollen count back three to four weeks from the start of its season. ‘If you generally use a steroid nasal spray (eg, Beconase) to control your symptoms, this is when you need to begin using it – three or four weeks ahead of when you expect symptoms to start,’ says pharmacist Michelle Sutton of natorigin.co.uk.

‘Steroids work by reducing inflammation, but they struggle to do this once the inflammatory process has started.’

Which pollen, when?

✤ March to late April – birch and ash
✤ March to late April – plane
✤ Early April – oak
✤ Mid April – pine
✤ Early May – grass and nettle
✤ Early June – lime

Step two Be £££ savvy

It won’t make any difference to your hay fever symptoms whether you buy a branded product or a generic one, but it can make a huge difference to your wallet.

‘The active ingredient in Beconase nasal spray is beclometasone, and you can usually save yourself about £2 by asking your pharmacist for this as a generic nasal spray,’ says Michelle Sutton.

Step three Mighty C

Take a daily vitamin C supplement through to the end of the allergy season, says nutritionist Judy Watson (judywatsonnutritionist.co.uk).

‘This will further help to break the histamine down.’ Try Vitamin C with Bioflavonoids, £11.95 for 320, from healthspan.co.uk. Bioflavonoids assists with the absorption of vitamin C and also helps your body cope with itching and inflammation.

Step four Chill out

Stress is your enemy and a study at Ohio University found that even slight stress and anxiety can substantially worsen your allergic reaction to some routine allergens such as pollen.

That’s because the stress hormone cortisol affects the immune system, making it less able to cope, explains Dr Jean Emberlin, Scientific Director of Allergy UK.

‘And when your immune system can’t fight back, you end up more bunged up, teary and sneezy,’ she says. ‘Anything that helps you relax – be it dancing, yoga, meditation, or just watching TV – can help reduce the impact of cortisol on your allergic response.’

Step five Tweak your diet

When you’re allergic to something, your body releases histamine, a compound which causes blood vessels to dilate (hence you get flushed and itchy) and mucus to go into overdrive, giving you a runny nose.

If you’re already susceptible to this increased histamine release, it’s important to avoid consuming food and drinks that are naturally rich in histamine.

Alcohol – and red wine, in particular – tops the chart. But if you’re very sensitive to histamine you may also need to go easy on pickled or canned foods, smelly cheeses, smoked meats (salami, ham, sausages) and chocolate – all of which have high levels.

Packing your diet with colourful fruit and veg will nourish your immune system and make it better able to cope with your allergy.

And there are some foods – notably onions – that are high in quercetin, a natural antihistamine that will reduce symptoms.

Fresh fruit

Making small changes to your diet can help fight off hay fever © iStock

Step six Be symptom specific

If your only symptom is itchy, watery eyes, antihistamine or sodium cromoglicate eye drops (ask for this rather than a brand name like Opticrom) should be all you need.

On the other hand, if you’re already taking steroids and have still got symptoms you can also take an antihistamine (such as loratadine or cetirizine).

‘Once again, ask for it by its generic name at the pharmacy counter and it will be a fraction of the price of the same ingredient in a branded product such as Clarityn and Zirtek,’ says Michelle.

Step seven Know when to see your GP

If you qualify for free prescriptions, your GP can give you a script for the over-the-counter hay fever medicines so you won’t have to pay. If over-the-counter products aren’t working, they can prescribe stronger ‘third generation’ antihistamines (such as levocetirizine and desloratadine), which claim to be anti-inflammatory too.

Your GP is also your first point of call if you think you need to be referred to an allergy specialist.

Sub-lingual immunotherapy (tablets that you dissolve under your tongue every day for three years) or subcutaneous immunotherapy (a set of injections, started before your hay fever season) are options – and available on the NHS – when all the usual over-the-counter and prescription medicines have failed to control your condition.

You would need to start immunotherapy treatment between autumn and spring to prepare for next year.

Step eight Clean up your life

Keep yourself a pollen-free zone by cleaning pollen particles out of your nasal passages once or twice a day with a saline nasal rinse (such as Sterimar Sea Water Nasal Spray).

For anyone who would like to use a drug-free hay fever treatment, (including young children, pregnant women and the elderly), there is Nasaleze, also sold as Care Allergy Defence, a cellulose nasal spray that forms a protective barrier against pollen in the nose.

And visit allergyuk.org for details of recommended anti-allergy vacuum cleaners and air purifiers.