Airborne substances (pollens) that attack the upper respiratory passages – the nose, sinus, throat and the eyes. From April to May tree pollens are the main allergen, from May to August it's grass pollen, and in late summer weed pollens.
Itchy and watery eyes, frequent sneezing, a blocked-up or runny nose, itching on the roof of the mouth, wheezing and coughing. Hayfever sufferers can be more vulnerable to other allergic diseases, such as asthma, and are more likely to suffer sleep loss because of extreme nasal congestion. Sinus problems may also be exacerbated.
How common is it?
About 15 per cent of the population in all industrialised countries. Over 10 million people in the UK, accounting for 2.5 per cent of all GP visits and costing around £50 million in medication. Symptoms usually appear in childhood, from around eight years, and lessen by the ages of 30 or 40. Hayfever is rare in a child under three.
Children with siblings, or who go to nurseries, are less prone to hayfever, suggests a large international study in Thorax. This supports the `hygiene hypothesis' that bacterial assault from childhood infections may programme the immune system to not respond to allergens. Susceptible children (i.e. those with allergic parents) who had siblings, and only children who attended nursery, also had less hayfever, suggesting that exposure to other children is protective for those who are `sensitised'.
How is it treated?
Antihistamines, anti inflammatory sprays and corticosteroid sprays can all be prescribed for children over six. "Avoid decongestants" says Maureen Jenkins, allergy nurse at Allergy UK, "as they can make the problem worse" Allergy shots have also been shown to be effective, protecting against grass, ragweed and tree pollen. Research published in the British Medical Journal reported that in a double-blind trial with 50 hayfever sufferers, those taking a homeopathic remedy reported a 28 per cent improvement in their symptoms over the placebo group.
Anti-igE therapy (see PAR, p25) and immunosuppressant drugs. GM technology is capable of engineering plants that are pollen-free. However, this is unlikely to be used as a solution, as the long-term effects of such genetically modified plants are unknown.
What you can do
Keep doors and windows shut during hayfever season. Get a friend to cut the lawn while you take the children out. "If your child suffers from hayfever, try removing wheat from her diet during the hayfever season" says Anne McIntyre, author of The Herbal Mother And Child. According to McIntyre, this could help the respiratory tract's mucous membranes to tolerate grass pollen and so reduce symptoms. For two months before the hayfever season, try giving your child a dessertspoonful of local honey (see Resources, left) with each meal. This will contain the type of pollen that inhabits your environment and might help to desensitise your child before the hayfever season starts. Chamomile and yarrow can be given as a daily tea to allergic children: they soothe the allergic response and inhibit histamine production. New Era Junior Hayfever and Allergic Rhinitis, £2.39, is a homeopathic remedy specifically for children that claims to work by correcting imbalances in the body's cells. For best results, give two tablets, three times a day; and when symptoms are acute, two tablets every half-hour. n "I use a lot of chamomile when I treat children with hayfever" says Dee Atkinson, medical herbalist from Napiers, "because it has an anti-inflammatory effect and soothes irritation of the eyes, nose and throat. Ideally, I would combine this with nettle, which has a natural antihistamine action, and plantain. Plantain is a really old-fashioned herb that can be used to strengthen the mucous membranes of the respiratory tract"
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