Spring brings so many wonderful things – sunshine and flowers and that lovely sense of new hope and fresh beginnings, even the joys of spring-cleaning! But for the ten million South Africans who suffer from allergic rhinitis, hay fever, and other seasonal allergies, it can be one of the least pleasant times of the year, bringing sniffing, sneezing, coughing, watering eyes and itching ears, throats, and noses.
The culprit is pollen, those tiny seeds released into the air by trees and grasses for the purpose of fertilising other plants. Pollen can travel vast distances, and the higher the pollen count, the greater the misery for those who are allergic to it. When someone who’s allergic breathes in pollen grains, the immune system regards the grains as foreign invaders and releases antibodies. The antibodies attack the allergens, releasing chemicals called histamines into the blood which in turn trigger the runny nose, itchy eyes, and other symptoms of an allergic reaction.
Over-the-counter solutions like antihistamines, decongestants, and nasal sprays can help; but in severe cases your doctor may recommend a prescription medication or allergy shots, or refer you to an allergist for tests to identify exactly what it is you’re allergic to. Rinsing your nasal passages with a distilled, sterile, saline solution is a quick, inexpensive, and effective way to relieve congestion and flush out mucus and allergens from your nose: combine warm, distilled, sterile, or previously-boiled water with about a quarter-teaspoon of salt and a quarter-teaspoon of baking soda, and administer the solution through a sterilised squeeze bottle or neti pot (available from your pharmacy). A little Vaseline applied to the lower nostrils on a cotton bud is soothing and protective, while breathing in steam from a bowl of boiling water or a hot bath or shower can help relieve symptoms, as can drinking peppermint tea.
Not all pollens cause allergic reactions – the sticky, heavier pollens produced by brightly-coloured flowers and dispersed by insects or birds are usually safe while the allergens are mostly those pollens which are carried by wind. To reduce your exposure, stay indoors as much as possible on dry windy days, particularly mid-morning and in the early evenings when pollen counts are highest. Keep doors and windows of your home and car closed during pollen season, and use air conditioners when possible. Wear wraparound sunglasses or a dust mask if you’re working in the garden. To minimise transfer of pollen indoors, wash your hair and change your clothes after being outside, and avoid hanging laundry outdoors. Check your local TV, radio station, website, or newspaper for pollen forecasts and current pollen levels, and if high counts are expected start taking allergy medications before your symptoms begin and be extra-careful when going outside.
If you’re considering alternative remedies, be sure to speak to your doctor first. The fact that a treatment calls itself “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe, particularly if you’re already using any other medications. Research shows that the most promising herbal treatment for relieving the symptoms of spring allergies is butterbur (Petadolex), obtainable in health food stores, which seems in some cases to be as effective as many antihistamines.
Some studies suggest that certain foods can help fight allergy symptoms. Vitamin C (found in citrus fruits) has antihistamine properties and helps to repair tissues throughout the body, while tomatoes (which also contain vitamin C) are rich in lycopene, a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. A diet high in vitamin E may help reduce your body’s response to allergens – sunflower seeds, wheat germ oil, almonds, and peanuts are all good sources. If you’re low in magnesium, you could be more prone to allergic wheezing; try eating more spinach, nuts (especially almonds and cashews), bran, and oatmeal. Although scientific evidence is inconclusive, some studies indicate that locally-produced raw honey may help reduce seasonal allergies – the thinking is that because the bees are using nectar from the flowering plants in your area to produce their honey, eating it could help desensitise your body’s response to pollen allergies.
With such a range of possible treatments, there’s sure to be something that can help prevent or at least reduce those misery-causing symptoms and make your spring a little less stuffy – and a lot more beautiful.