Much more than a simple sniffle, hay fever sufferers can look forward to everything from poor sleep to increased anxiety levels come spring, which can have a serious impact on your fitness agenda. Here’s what the latest research says about seasonal allergies and how you can keep symptoms from taking over your life.
For some, spring is one of the most beloved seasons of the year: a time for winding outdoor jogs in the sun followed by recovery swims or open-air yoga. But for the one in five Australians who suffer from allergic rhinitis (a.k.a. hay fever or seasonal allergies), the months between September and November are also met with dread (and antihistamines).
Beyond the physical effects – sneezing, itchy eyes, congestion, wheezing and even asthma – hay fever sufferers have a higher incidence of anxiety and depression and a lower resistance to stress, according to a recent Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI) review. Scientists reckon this is due to poor sleep impacting energy, concentration, and mood.
For the fit-minded woman, these symptoms every spring can mean many missed workouts. The good news? There are ways to mitigate the damage.
What is hay fever?
Allergies occur when your immune system reacts to a particular substance (an allergen) that could be harmless to the next person. For people with hay fever, allergens include pollens from plants and grasses, and moulds which tend to pollinate and populate during spring. Some people can suffer for even longer periods, depending on the weather and pollination cycles of their area.
What causes hay fever?
Hay fever is thought to be a combo of both nature and nurture.
‘It is theorised that certain people are predisposed to allergic sensitivity through genetic inheritance,’ says Dr Donald J. Dvorin, Co-founder of The Asthma Center.
That said, communities with higher exposure to bacterial and viral infections – such as developing rural communities – tend to have lower rates of seasonal environments. This suggests your home environment, particularly during childhood, can also impact your likelihood of developing an allergy.
‘Some studies have also shown that early exposure to cats and dogs in the home for children under one year, while the immune system is still developing, decreases the rate of allergic rhinitis and asthma development,’ explains Dr Dvorin.
‘Infants who live with animals are found to have different and more diverse gut microbiomes than those who don’t, which may be part of the reason such exposure helps protect them.’
How to reduce your allergy symptoms
Here’s some sneaky ways you can get out and about during spring – sniffle-free:
1. Be aware of the air.
If you suffer from hay fever, you’re likely a victim of your environment. Heat and humidity? Tree and grass pollens thrive. Add wind into the equation? Pollens are picked up and populated, making their way onto your skin and into your nose and mouth, wreaking havoc.
Monitoring your local pollen and mould spore counts can help you to plan outdoor activities and adjust any medications.
‘Know what’s in the air and when,’ says Dr Dvorin.
‘The peak time for the release of pollen grains is in the morning, while outdoor mould spore release is known to be significant in the evening. But depending on heat, humidity, and wind conditions, both pollen and mould exposure may intensify at other times during the day.’
Pollen tracking in Australia still needs some work, particularly for regional areas. For now, Asthma Australia recommends downloading the AirRater app (Tasmania or the ACT) or the AusPollen app (Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and Adelaide).
2. Avoid a home invasion.
Stop trudging allergens throughout your house. Keep windows and doors shut in the home and car, and be sure to shower and change clothes as soon as you come inside.
Wash your hair each night before bed – many sleep problems occur from pollens and grasses being accidentally transferred from head to pillow.
‘Wash your face, especially your eyebrows, as those microscopic pollen grains and mould spores can cling to your eyebrows like Velcro,’ adds Dr Dvorin.
Front door etiquette is also key. Remove your shoes before you step inside and scrub them regularly.
3. Watch out for water.
Mould thrives anywhere water lives and stands. Ensure you use bathroom fans to reduce moisture build-up when showering and disinfect the space often. Scrub any visible mould from your laundry basins and other wet areas, such as sinks and drains. Clogged gutters and cut grass are also danger zones, so clear them quickly.
Symptoms and allergens vary from person to person, so the first point of call is always an experienced allergist. Start any recommended allergy medications two weeks prior to allergy season to help prevent symptoms, suggests Allergist Dr Karine Zakarian.
‘Seasonal allergies can be treated more long term with allergen immunotherapy (allergy shots) or oral immunotherapy,’ she adds, which involves a series of shots or tablets containing small doses of the problem allergen.
‘This modifies the disease by gradually exposing the person to the allergen so that their immune system learns to tolerate it.’
For tips on dealing with seasonal allergies while exercising, take a look at the article here.