I hate spring,” declares New Delhi-based marketing executive Shashi Sinha, rubbing a runny nose. For Sinha and many like her, spring can be a reminder of unseen, often unknown, enemies or allergens that hang around the air from now till virtually the end of summer.
What is hay fever?
Try telling someone you suffer from rhinitis and the reaction is likely to be memorable. Allergic rhinitis is simply hay fever, a name given by farmers who sneezed and wheezed more than usual during haying.
Photo: Ramesh Pathania / Mint
Spring is the season when more grass and cattle feed grows than at any other time of the year, especially in temperate maritime climates such as in England. The growth is so sudden that some believe the season gets its name from the green that springs up, almost miraculously, after a bleak winter. The changes it brings to the level of allergens can be just as sudden. If you peer closely at the wild grasses around, you’ll notice they are studded with tiny flowers of a myriad shapes, sizes and colours.
Cutting the abundant growth in late spring and summer, drying and storing it for the green-lean winter months, made sense for farmers. So generations of them sneezed and spluttered as they tossed and turned the hay, perhaps not understanding that the flowers in the grass were some of the most doughty allergens. So, every time they moved the hay, the tiny grains of pollen flew around.
Not just in spring
It isn’t just spring that can place allergens in a position of power. Says Asha Pherwani, consultant paediatrician and allergy and asthma specialist, PD Hinduja Hospital, Mumbai: “If you are allergic to a particular type of pollen, you will suffer in the season it is around. Usually, there’s a lot of pollen in spring and summer.” You could also be allergic to insects that become active during this season.
There was a time when seasonal allergens went with the seasons. So if you’re wondering why you sneeze and splutter longer than ever before, it could be due to climatic changes. “Increasing pollution and changes in weather conditions, including global warming, lead to longer summers. The aerobiology changes,” points out Dr Pherwani.
This means plants flower earlier, pollen pops up before time and hangs around in the air for a longer duration. “The structure of pollen is also changing,” she says. As if there wasn’t enough tickling your nose already, here are more developments worth a sneeze. “Pollen is larger. Since insects pollinate several flowers, you can also get insect allergy.”
Some can smell trouble
People sensitive to moulds can often smell discomfort. Dr Pherwani says: “Just before the monsoons and through the rains, house dust mites and fungi multiply fast. The heat and moisture increases their numbers.”
If you’re allergic to mould, make sure there are no seepage patches at home. Mould loves closed spaces, so air the house. Says Sohini Roy who lives in an old building in Kolkata, “I’m so sensitive to mould that I dry out my bedroom with a heater even in summer.”
If you must compost leaves for an organic garden, try anaerobic composting by letting the leaves rot in a closed container. Every time you need to open the lid, tie a thick scarf or mask to cover your nose. If that doesn’t help, Dr Pherwani suggests inhalers or allergy vaccines that can be administered after a skin allergy test.
The lining of our lungs and intestines has immune functions so if you are allergic, build up resistance till your body starts tolerating regulatory T cells or immune cells. Masks are uncomfortable and pollen, which is fine, can pass through easily.
Before you banish all the plants from your home, here’s some good news. Most common allergens are from grass pollens. Adds Ashutosh Shukla, head of internal medicine, Artemis Health Institute, Gurgaon, “Certain weeds could also be responsible.”
Through the year, several grasses let out allergens which get exaggerated during pollen season. Many grass flowers are greenish or dull-coloured, since they don’t need to attract the attention of insect pollinators. They produce tiny pollen grains that are easily airborne. Flowers that are pollinated by insects, on the other hand, generally produce larger pollen that is too big and heavy to be airborne for too long. Flowers that practise cleistogamy or self-pollination and have closed flowers—such as peas, sweetpeas and violets—should be safe too.
Also remember, pollen spreads most in the morning when the air is also heavy with smog. “Avoid opening out the windows or going for a walk early in the morning,” advises Dr Pherwani. If you must, use an inhaler before the walk.
Where you live also counts. Some cities, points out Dr Pherwani, aren’t too kind on those who are allergic to pollen. These include Bangalore, Pune and New Delhi. “Fortunately,” she laughs, “we have less green cover in Mumbai, so fewer (cases of) pollen allergy.” However, if none of this helps, you may need to consult an allergy specialist. Advises Dr Shukla, “We need to identify the allergen and also do a careful environmental review.”
SELF-HELP FOR SUFFERERS
Before the spring cleaning
Planning to remove the cobwebs? If you’re allergic to dust, this could be your annual dread day. The answer would be to try and maintain a dust-free home all year,
every week. Allergies can be insidious, so outsource the work to family or paid help if you can.
Also, if paint smells give you a sore throat or even bring on a fever, Dr Shukla advises you to stay away while the house gets a fresh coat.
Stay safe from sneezes
If you’re itchy, sneezy or wheezy, here’s advice from Dr Shukla and Dr Pherwani. The best thing to do is to identify and stay away from these allergens.
Avoid exposure by:
• Rolling up the car windows while commuting.
• Keeping windows at home closed.
• Staying indoors as much as possible.
• Using ACs to filter the air during this season.
• Taking a shower before going to sleep to remove pollen from hair and skin.
• Using over-the-counter saline sprays and rinses.
• Declaring war on weeds such as
• Covering pillows and mattresses with special covers to protect against mites.
• Washing bedsheets and pillow covers on alternate days.
• Covering the sofa with a washable bedsheet.
• Rolling back carpets when you’re in the room.
• Washing the curtains every week.
• Swabbing as opposed to sweeping the room.
Did Ma pass it on?
An allergy could be triggered by various factors, one being heredity.
Does that mean your child must
live with an allergy? Dr Pherwani notes several children outgrow an allergy
or learn to manage it without medication.
No flowers for your bedside table, no garden for your backyard?
Hay fever does not necessarily mean your vases stay empty for life. Watch out for the following:
• Touch-me-not or Mimosa pudica
• Powder puff or Calliandra haematocephala
• Football lily or Haemanthus multiflorus or Scadoxus multiflorus
• Green flowers
It should be safe to be around these:
• Morning glory or ipomea
• Chives & mint
If throwing away the bouquet doesn’t outwit your allergy, maybe you have allergic rhinitis of a different kind. Or maybe you’ve not caught the actual culprit.
But what exactly is this allergy and why does it trouble you so? Can it be cured once and for all or will you just have to learn how to manage it?
These are just some of the questions we asked doctors for next week’s story on the health page, which will be a follow-up to this one, on nasal allergies.
Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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