Health

Grass pollen misery forces hay fever children indoors

Boys hugging in grassy field
Image caption Children with grass pollen allergies can be badly affected in the summer months.

Mowing the lawn, playing with the kids in the local park and taking a walk through the fields - all normal summer pursuits for many people.

But, for hay fever sufferers, the mere thought of uncut grass sends them scurrying indoors.

Around 15m people in the UK have hay fever and 95% are allergic to grass pollen - and this year is proving to be a particularly difficult time for them.

Last month the Met Office warned of a "pretty significant season for hay fever sufferers", especially in south and central areas, because of a very warm, dry spring.

June and July are the traditional months when grass pollen counts become a problem for sufferers, particularly on hot, sunny days.

But this can vary from year to year and pollination may be up to three weeks later in Scotland and the North of England.

Yolanda Clewlow, UK pollen network manager with the Met Office says grass pollen is the top irritant for hay fever sufferers because the pollen from grass is released in vast quantities.

"Most airborne pollen will get lost, so a lot is released. It's much lighter and more allergenic. It's the stuff you can't see. Only a small amount actually makes it to a fertile piece of ground."

'Eyes become inflamed'

When grass pollen is breathed into the nose or mouth, the body's immune system over-reacts and releases chemicals which cause inflammation.

Some of these, like histamine, work quickly, causing sneezing, itching and runny nose.

The eyes can become itchy, red and watery.

The allergic reaction can also lead to headaches and difficulty sleeping.

These symptoms, known as rhinitis, can seem trivial but according to charity Allergy UK, studies show it can have a very negative effect on the lives of sufferers.

Dr Glenis Scadding, President of the British Society for Allergy and Clinical Immunology and honorary consultant in rhinology at the Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital in London, says the effects can be terrible.

"Some people can't go outside their house, particularly around Wimbledon fortnight. Their eyes become inflamed, they can't see properly and they sneeze constantly."

Children are also affected.

"Grass pollen allergies can adversely affect school children sitting their GCSE and A level exams and many younger children can't attend their sports days because of it," she says.

Image caption An inflamed eye due to a pollen allergy

Allergy UK says that people who suffer rhinitis are at increased risk of developing asthma.

"Inflammation at one end of the airway (the nose) often spreads to the other end (the lungs)."

In fact, rhinitis sufferers are three times more likely to get asthma - this increases to nine times more likely for children with allergic rhinitis who get frequent colds.

Although most sufferers can be helped by using a daily nasal steroid spray and an antihistamine - ideally before symptoms start - this treatment doesn't work for everyone.

Learn to tolerate

For people with more serious allergies and more extreme symptoms, a treatment called immunotherapy can be tried.

It entails giving the patient tiny quantities of allergen extract either by injection or in tablet form under the tongue.

Starting with very low doses then gradually increasing the dose over time, the immune system slowly begins to tolerate the allergen. A course of immunotherapy can last for three years or more.

"Instead of a massive reaction, the body's immune system begins to think of the allergen as something harmless," explains Dr Scadding.

She would like to see this technique used to treat more children with grass pollen allergies too - not just the most serious hay fever cases.

"Immunotherapy is vastly under-utilised despite epidemic proportions of allergic disease which significantly impair quality of life, work and school performance."

Although it was first tried in the UK one hundred years ago, immunotherapy has always been far more widely used in other countries, say the Allergy Clinic.

The risk of immunotherapy is that the injection of an allergen to a sensitised patient can cause a severe allergic reaction or anaphylaxis.

"Recently, very safe forms of allergy desensitisation treatment have been developed, and this treatment is becoming popular again," the Allergy Clinic's website says.

So there is hope for those whose lives are made a misery by months of airborne grass pollen.

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