Is there anything worse than a mad fit of sneezing while out running in the park on a warm summer evening – especially for anyone prone to even a mild attack of hay fever?
The summer months are the worst, given the naturally high and often unpredictable pollen counts, and at times it feels like the cause and the symptoms are impossible to outrun. But can you at least hide?
I am a summer-sniffles sufferer and despite my best efforts, it’s usually a matter of sneezing and bearing, although there are ways to help ensure hay fever is kept to a minimum.
A common complaint
Dr Iseult Sheehan of Allergy Ireland, based at the Slievemore Clinic in south county Dublin, does have some advice on ways to alleviate or avoid exacerbating such allergies, including asthma and respiratory or skin irritants.
“Runners aren’t necessarily more prone to hay fever but are more likely to be outdoors and exercising around grassy areas when the pollen count might be high,” she says. “So, that puts them more at risk.
“In Ireland, around 24 per cent of the population suffer from some form of allergy, and that figure is rising. We’re talking about 1.2 million people, and about 12 per cent of those would suffer from hay fever, which is seasonal,” she says.
“The best way to manage any allergy is avoidance, but that’s very difficult. With hay fever, being aware of pollen counts is key, via Met Eireann, or wherever. The long, dry, warm summer days are the worst, especially if there’s a light breeze to carry the pollen in the air. On the wetter, cooler days the pollen can be washed out of the air.
“Morning time is also when pollen is released, so around midday is usually the better time for avoidance, and it peaks again towards the late afternoon, between 4-7pm. If possible, avoid the very lush grasslands, so on a beach or close to the sea is best of all, where the onshore breeze will reduce pollen count.”
As well as the sneezing, watery, swollen and itchy eyes don’t make for pleasant running, and again avoidance is the key: “Wraparound sunglasses can offer good eye protection, and try not to itch the eyes, as that will only release more histamine and make things worse.
“Also, when you come in from the run, take off your clothes as quickly as possible, wash them, and get into the shower and wash your hair quickly too, to try to remove all the pollen. Because you can get a delayed reaction over the next few hours and worsen the symptoms.”
Dr Sheehan continues: “It’s also important to try not to dry clothes outdoors when the pollen count is high, because that can also aggravate symptoms. As the day goes on, there is also some pollution release in the air, if say, strong pollen, mixes with diesel fumes, that can make things worse again, heightening the allergies even more.”
The Smart Peak Flow
For anyone with asthma, part of the worry is predicting when exactly the problem might be at its worst: this is where the Smart Peak Flow device comes in.
Invented by Dr Thomas Antalffy, managing director of Smart Respiratory Products, it is the world’s first asthma-monitoring device that plugs into the headphone jack of any smartphone to help monitor when users are at risk of an attack. It can predict when an attack is likely by up to seven days.
“Our device is specifically geared towards asthma, which is a lung allergy. So, instead of your eyes watering or your nose dripping, your lungs are producing mucus, and also as a defensive reaction, the airways narrow, which contributes to shortness of breath,” says Dr Antalffy.
“When that flares up, people will feel it, but the process often starts days before, and you can’t feel that. The Smart Peak Flow measures that airflow, at different percentages, so you become more aware of the level. Even a serious asthma attack can be seen from four or five days out, so it’s an early-warning system.
“Like any allergy, there are also triggers, such as when pollen count is high, but there are certain types of pollen to look out for as well. The device is for general use or for anyone with asthma, and is helpful for runners too. If they are training for a race in two or three weeks’ time, using the Smart Peak Flow will allow them to keep an accurate diary as well, via the phone, before or after each run, of the percentage of airflow level.”
For some runners, there may also be an underlying respiratory condition, such as asthma, which again can be heightened by certain pollutants and pollen.
“As well as the sneezing, the running nose, the itchy eyes or throat, you can also develop asthma-like symptoms, even if you’re not an asthma sufferer, a wheeze, or a cough, or a tightness in the chest. That can be a surprise to some, and if you find you are developing those symptoms it’s important you see a doctor, to put good management of the position in place.
“Allergies can trigger swelling in the nasal cavity, and that can impact the sinuses, filling them with mucus. That pressure causes the pain, and that can end up as an infection. But most of the time the nose and sinus are just blocked up.
“Over-the-counter medications will usually manage this, and a mild anti-histamine is excellent for mild allergies and can be very effective for runners outdoors on a high-pollen day. Take one a couple of hours in advance – the non-drowsy ones are the best. Eye drops can help as well and, also, the steroid nasal spray, which can be quite good for sneezing and an itchy nose.”
For more chronic or severe hay fever, Dr Sheehan also recommends some further intervention: “There are other ways of building tolerance over time. Like using immunotherapy, taking a little tablet of grass pollen, over a three-year period, and essentially vaccinating yourself against pollen. That works well with children and adults.
“We also have the process called Rhinolight, using UV phototherapy in each nostril, which can stop the reaction to grass pollen, and would be one way to prevent it, but that also needs topping up.”