When the warmer weather comes it usually marks the end of seasonal coughs and colds. However, this year we’re still fighting coronavirus with another potential surge in June as we ease out of lockdown – more on that here.
As if we didn’t have enough to challenge our immune system right now, some of us will be fighting a war against pollen too.
What is hay fever?
Hay fever is an allergic reaction to pollen.
It occurs when pollen enters your system, usually through your nose, eyes, and mouth. But instead of ignoring it, your body perceives the threat of invasion and mounts a response to fight back.
During the attack, your body releases the neurotransmitter histamine. When histamine is activated it causes hay fever’s well-known symptoms; a runny nose, itchy eyes and sneezing.
Children in particular can go on to develop a middle ear infection as their Eustachian tube (the sinus that links the nose to the ear) is extra small and easily blocked with excess fluid.
When is the Hay Fever Season?
In the UK the hay fever season begins in March with tree pollen’s, extends to June with grasses and onto September with weeds. Southern England regularly experiences some of the highest grass pollen counts in the world, and this can severely debilitate pollen allergic people during this season.
Up to 30 % of adults and 40% of children in the Western world suffer from hay fever every year. Considered a trivial disease, hay fever is not life threatening. However, for many, being sensitive to grasses and pollens can mean a Summer of misery and months of night-time sleep disturbances.
Interestingly, children who grow up in the countryside are less likely to develop hay fever, because they build an immunity to the pollen around them from an early age.
However, although they don’t react to local pollen, some may still be allergic to pollen from other parts of the world. For example, it is not uncommon to experience hay fever for the first time whilst on holiday or even on moving to a different part of the country.
Considering how common it is, the term ‘hay fever’ didn’t exist 200 years ago.
It’s not that people didn’t suffer, it’s just that the medical profession hadn’t recognised it yet. It took a dedicated physician, Dr. John Bostock who had been a sufferer since the age of 8, nine years of research and persuasion before it was finally accepted.
Conventional treatment options
Conventional treatment options for hay fever include antihistamines, which can help prevent an allergic reaction from happening and corticosteroids (steroids), which help reduce levels of inflammation and swelling. However, antihistamines are not suitable for children under two years old, or for children suffering from atopic eczema. With steroids considered a last resort treatment, what can you do to support the immune system and limit suffering?
Is there a family link?
You are more likely to get hay fever if there is a history of allergies in the family, particularly asthma or eczema. This triad of allergic conditions is called Atopy and is commonly accompanied by food allergies.
With this in mind, when it comes to hay fever, I tend to look at the diet first. In fact, research showed that 90% of infant hay fever improved on a hypo-allergenic diet.
Diet and hay fever?
The link between what we put in our mouths and a reaction to pollen is not an obvious one. If I can explain it in simple terms, by reducing the total allergic load (reducing reactions to food allergies and intolerances), the body’s immune system may be better equipped to tolerate outside substances such as pollen.
You can’t avoid pollen, but you do have control over what you eat.
So where do you start?
From experience working at an Allergy Clinic for many years, I find cow’s milk products (milk, butter, cheese, ice cream, yoghurt and custard) to be most troublesome.
Wheat, being a grass itself and consumed so frequently in bread, pastry, cereal, biscuits, and cakes, is also a culprit. Also watch out for food additives, preservatives and colourings.
Thankfully, alternatives to choose from are plenty.
Supermarkets now stock a wide variety of allergy awareness items. Some of my favourites for example are unsweetened rice, oat and almond milk. Sourdough rye bread, oatcakes, quinoa, brown rice pasta or noodles.
Goat and sheep milk, cheese, and butter tend to be better tolerated than cow’s milk. And you can even get UK and EU approved Nanny Goat formula.
If hay fever is really bothersome and/or accompanied by eczema or asthma (and possibly but not always digestive complaints), it’s wise to get a food intolerance test alongside professional advice on an elimination diet from a fully qualified Nutritional Therapist.
Practical solutions for hay fever:
If your child’s symptoms are particularly bad at night, you should consider Anti-allergy bedding and make sure you dry clothes and sheets indoors so that they do not pick up pollen spores on the washing line.
Bathing and washing hair every night may also be of help.
Avoid being outside when the pollen count is at its highest. The Met office forecast daily pollen counts here.
Home remedies for hay fever:
There are various nutrients that are useful for hay fever.
Probiotics have shown considerable benefit in hay fever sufferers.
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria (microbiome) in your gut that have a positive effect on your immune system (I talk about them more here). In research, those taking a supplement providing 3 billion bacteria a combination of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium showed a 49% improvement of symptoms. Probiotics are especially beneficial in replacing good flora killed off by antibiotics.
Quercetin is a bioflavonoid and antioxidant that regulates histamine production. In research it has shown reduction in inflammation and allergy symptoms.
It’s not an instant solution, you need to take it throughout the duration of the season to support your immune system. Eating foods containing quercetin is also beneficial. These include red onions, apples, broccoli and berries. A surprisingly delicious way to get quercetin is by making your own onion syrup (recipe here).
There are also many good quercetin and other nutrient combination supplements out there. This is the one I’m giving our daughter at the moment.
Vitamin C has an important role in nearly every single part of our immune system. Without it our immune system would not function properly (more on this soon). In terms of allergy, it calms down allergic reaction and is anti-inflammatory.
You can get vitamin C easily from your diet by eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, in particular citrus, berries, kiwi, broccoli and peppers. Whipping up an immune boosting smoothie is an easy way to get a good hit in one go. Or why not try my home-made elderberry syrup?
However, unless you’re an ape eating 30 portions of the fresh stuff a day, you’re not going to get enough. I believe that supplementing around 1g morning and night is essential throughout the Winter to support your body through seasonal infections and allergies.
Local raw unheated honey is a well-known hay fever preventative, though should not be given to those under 1 year old. One study found that patients reported 60% less allergy symptoms and 70% fewer days with severe symptoms when consuming local honey. The explanation for this is that by exposure to tiny amounts of local pollen through local honey, your immune system becomes less sensitive to the allergen.
Here’s a simple everyday home remedy for children over 1:
1 tsp of raw honey
1 cooled cup of brewed chamomile and nettle tea
1 tsp Sambucol for kids (Black Elderberry Extract) – it’s easy to make your own. Here’s the recipe again.
Mix together and drink. Or if you prefer, make it into ice lollies.
As I mentioned above, our daughter has mild hay fever, sensitivity to cats and occasional eczema which is worse in the Summer months. She’s dairy and wheat free apart from a little goat butter and natural yoghurt. She eats a whole food diet with at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day and two to three portions of oily fish a week.
I’m giving her a good quality multivitamin plus extra 1-2g of vitamin C. During the Summer months I add in a quercetin supplement like the one above. At moment and she’s completely clear of any sneezing, itching or runny eyes.
As always, if you feel your child needs medication please consult your doctor.
If you have found this interesting or have any experience in treating you family’s hay fever through diet or other therapies, I would love to hear from you.
Thanks for reading. Stay well.