This website uses cookies to facilitate navigation, registration and collection of statistics.
The information stored in cookies is used exclusively by our website. When browsing with active cookies consents to its use.

Take care of yourself [HEALTH, BEAUTY AND WELL-BEING]
Spring: The Ballet of pollens and hay fever

Springtime is a symphony of sounds, colours, aromas and flavours. Trees and “green shrubbery” – diverse grasses, cereals and weeds dance in the wind and release pollens with varying intensity. The wind, humidity, temperature, rain or dry weather are fundamental determinants of the amounts of pollens that are airborne.

For most people, the “pollen symphony” is not a problem. However, for around one out of four people, the “pollen season”, which begins in the Spring but may linger on until the end of Autumn, the situation can be very disturbing. Red and itchy eyes, frequente tearing, sneezing bouts, runny and often blocked nose, are some of the most frequent expressions of seasonal allergies.

And what is going on? Well, instead of tolerating exposure to pollens, people who are allergic to them have an exaggerated reaction upon contact. They are, thus, “sensitised” to pollens. This may be directed to a single type of pollen (e.g., olive tree), a single “family” of pollens (e.g.., grass or weeds), or various families of pollens. Sensitised people only have problems with pollens they are sensitised to, but tolerate other pollens.

When people with “allergic rhinitis” or “hay fever” inhale pollens to which they are sensitised, those pollens become deposited on the lining of the nose, and make nasal cells produce substances (e.g., histamine) which induce sneezing and vasodilation of nasal blood vessels. This contributes towards nasal blockage, but also to nasal dripping. Production of very diluted nasal mucus also contributes to nasal dripping. Finally, nasal lining cells also produce substances which attract white blood cells (e.g., eosinophils), to the nose, which is a type of inflammation and contributes towards nasal blockage. Thus, allergic rhinitis is a form of allergic inflammation.
And how does one know whether it is seasonal allergic rhinitis or common cold? Well, usually episodes of allergic rhinitis last longer, are not accompanied by fever or muscle pain, and symptoms clearly worsen when people are outdoors (breathing pollens!). But, in order to be sure of the diagnosis, it is necessary to see a doctor and do some tests. These include checking whether there are high levels of an antibody called IgE (an indicator of allergies), specific against pollens. It is also possible to perform skin prick tests. If these are positive, they confirm pollen allergy.

And what can be done about it? First of all, simple prevention: to avoid being outdoors for long periods, on windy days; to avoid airing homes early in the morning or late in the afternoon; to drive with closed windows; to avoid drying laundry outdoors; to shower and change clothes after being in the country; to avoid gardening (or do it wearing a mask); to apply mineral oil in the nostrils, on windy days or when going to the countryside, in order to avoid pollens entering the nose. However, these measures are often not enough, and it is necessary to be on regular anti-allergic medication (antihistamines). If this approach does not fully work, it is necessary to add periods of special antiinflammatory sprays (corticosteroids) or other treatment options. These drugs may partially or completely control symptoms, but do not potentially cure, unlike specific immunotherapy (“anti-allergic vaccines”), which may cure rhinitis in part of the patients. It involves injections or sublingual drops of pollen extracts patients are allergic to. Treatment is carried out in increasing doses until the body starts tolerating the “pollen ballet”.  Currently, with adequate treatments, i tis possible to have a normal or almost normal life, in the pollen season!

Luís Taborda Barata - Allergist / Specialist Medical Doctor (Centro Hospitalar Cova da Beira, Covilhã)

Full Professor of Medicine, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Beira Interior (Covilhã)