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Hay fever 101: how to survive the pollen season and protect your eyes

The first heatwave of the year had us realise that spring is truly upon us; after months of unforgiving cold and rain, the time to put our coats back in the closet has finally come. 

Although many will feel sheer joy at the thought of enjoying the great outdoors, not everything is rosy in the warm season: according to Allergy UK, around eighteen million people have to fight the debilitating symptoms of hay fever in the UK, every year. 

If you suffer from this pollen allergy, or care for someone who does, read on to discover how it affects the eyes, and how to find relief.

1. Recognising the symptoms of hay fever

Hay fever stems from an allergic reaction to tree, grass or weed pollen. As these types of pollen are released at different times of the year, you may start noticing hay fever symptoms between the beginning of the grass season in May, and the end of weed pollen releases in autumn.

The most common symptoms affect the eyes, nose and throat. In particular, your eyes may become red, itchy and watery; this is known as allergic conjunctivitis. The NHS Choices website provides a more comprehensive list of symptoms, which also include frequent sneezing and a runny or blocked nose.

2. Treating hay fever

While there is no conclusive cure for hay fever, over-the-counter medication can help you control its symptoms. The most common treatments are antihistamines, eye drops, and steroids.

Antihistamines

Antihistamine treatments limit the effect of histamine – the major chemical released in allergic reactions. Available as tablets and sprays, they are effective in treating itchy and watery eyes, and can also help with nose inflammations.

You can use antihistamines when the first symptoms of hay fever crop up, or use them as preventive medication, taking them before heading outdoors when the pollen count (number of pollen grains in one cubic metre of air) is high.

Eye drops

Eye drops contain antihistamine, which can effectively relieve allergic conjunctivitis. The most widely used products contain the active ingredient sodium cromoglicate.

Eye care professionals recommend that contact lens wearers avoid this treatment: soft contact lenses tend to absorb the ingredients contained in antihistamine eye drops, causing further irritation to the eyes. If you want to try eye drops, consider using your glasses during the pollen season, and consult your Optician before beginning the treatment.

Steroids

Corticosteroids, available as tablets, sprays or eye drops, have a strong anti-inflammatory effect. They are most commonly used to reduce nose inflammations, but can also relieve itchy, watery eyes. According to the Midlands Asthma and Allergy Research Association, they are particularly effective if you start using them around two weeks before the pollen season starts.

Make sure you consult a medical practitioner before taking corticosteroids: they may lead to serious side effects, ranging from skin rashes to the development of eye conditions such as glaucoma and cataracts.

3. Finding relief from hay fever

Completely avoiding contact with pollen is a challenge – unless you plan to live a hermit’s life during the hot season! However, you can follow the steps below to minimise your exposure.

How to keep hay fever from affecting your eyes

Stay indoors at times of the day when the pollen count is at its highest (e.g. mid morning and early evening). Avoid any activities that put you into direct contact with pollen, such as lawn mowing and weeding.

When you’re out and about, wear sunglasses with close fitting shields at the sides, top and bottom, to keep pollen from getting into your eyes. Avoid bringing pollen into your house. For example, try keeping windows and doors closed, and leaving your pets outside as much as you can.

Clean your furniture with wet rather than dry cloths, to prevent dust and pollen from spreading around. Drive with your car windows closed, and get a pollen filter for the air vents in your car.

How to cope if you’re a contact lens wearer

Only wear your lenses at times when the pollen count is low, and use your glasses when it is at its peak. This will help you reduce the risk of eye irritation.

Avoid wearing contacts in hot and dry or dusty environments. Use your glasses instead, to prevent any pollen to get trapped under your lenses. If you are unable to wear glasses, choose daily disposable contact lenses, rather than two-weekly or monthly lenses. 

Replacing your lenses every day will help you prevent any pesky pollen build ups. If your eyes become very sore and red, remove your lenses immediately, and contact your eye care practitioner.

Let us know if you find these pieces of advice useful, and feel free to share any more tips that help you cope with seasonal allergies. When it comes to feeling healthy and enjoying the warm season, every little helps!