Illnesses and symptoms

Hay fever – the 6 biggest pollen allergy questions

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Source: iStock / Kontrec

Watery eyes, runny nose: the season of suffering kicks off again each spring for those with pollen allergies. Comparis answers the six biggest pollen allergy questions.

1. What happens in our bodies when we have hay fever?

Hay fever is the result of the body overreacting to pollen. Basically, the human immune system goes haywire. It forms antibodies against certain tree and grass proteins. If a person comes into contact with them again, histamine is released. This expands blood vessels, causing the conjunctiva and the nasal mucous membranes to swell. The airways, on the other hand, become restricted. Inflammatory processes are stimulated at the same time. In other words: histamine is the cause of the unpleasant symptoms that make allergy sufferers long for winter.

Usually, a pollen allergy will not adversely affect your health in the short term. Nevertheless, it is important to seek advice from a doctor. In the long term, complaints that go untreated may lead to chronic asthma.

2. What causes pollen allergies?

The number of hay fever sufferers has increased twenty times over in the last 100 years. Why more and more people are reacting to pollen in particular is still not fully clear. It is likely that hereditary factors play a role. However, environmental conditions also appear to contribute to the growing numbers of pollen allergy sufferers. Experts assume, for instance, that air pollution and climate change are also responsible for the surge in allergies. Longer and drier warm seasons encourage the growth of highly allergenic plants like ragweed. Being overly hygienic and having too little contact with animals may also negatively affect the human immune system.

3. When does hay fever season start?

The sneezing and sniffing usually starts in February, thanks to early bloomers like hazel and alder, and continues right through to September. The peak season is, of course, spring, when everything starts to blossom. Grasses and birch pollen are two of the main triggers of allergic reactions. Of roughly 3,500 plants in Switzerland, around 20 are responsible for pollen allergies. That may not sound much, but it is enough to plague some 1.2 million people in Switzerland with hay fever.

If you want to know exactly what is in flower and when, you could check out the Pollen-News app from the aha! Swiss Allergy Centre. It is available in German, French and Italian only. But a quick glance at your smartphone will tell you how much pollen is in the air in a particular place.

Alternatively, you can refer to these pollen calendars for Switzerland

4. What medicines help relieve hay fever symptoms?

Hay fever sufferers can choose from a range of products to help alleviate symptoms. The list below is not exhaustive but gives you an idea of some of the options:

Note: if you take anti-histamines, you should be aware that they only really start to take effect after you have been taking them for a few days. In other words, you can't just take a tablet when you feel an allergic reaction coming on. It’s better to start taking them just before the season starts, and not to skip a day if it rains, for example. Long-term use of anti-histamines is particularly suited to people with severe pollen allergies. The maximum effect is achieved this way. If you only have a mild allergy, you can just take medication occasionally.

Even for medicines that don't require a prescription, you should make sure you are aware of the possible side effects. First-generation antihistamines, for instance, can often lead to severe drowsiness, which is why you should be careful when driving or operating machinery. Although these side-effects are less common in second-generation antihistamines, you may experience headaches or dizziness instead.

If your symptoms are severe or chronic, it’s worth being seen by a doctor. Many antihistamines and steroid nasal sprays are only available on prescription

The cost of taking them can add up over a long period of time. Basic health insurance pays a contribution towards products listed in the official list of reimbursable pharmaceutical specialities published by the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH), and only if they are prescribed by a doctor. So if you haven't taken out a specific supplemental insurance policy, this means that any medicine you buy on your own initiative without prescription will be paid for out of your own pocket.


5. Why is it worth buying generic products?

Depending on the severity and duration of symptoms, pollen allergy sufferers can spend up to several hundred francs on medication each year. Savvy shoppers, however, can save a lot of money by choosing generic drugs. These drugs are identical to the original in terms of active ingredients, dosage and dosage form. They become available on the market when the patent of the original drug expires and cost significantly less – at least 20% less – than the original. They are well worth considering if you need to take medication for several months.

6. How can I protect myself from pollen in day-to-day situations?

If you are susceptible to hay fever, you should always keep a stock of medicine at home, particularly in spring. There are also some simple steps you can take to reduce your pollen exposure on a day-to-day basis and minimize allergic reactions. We’ve compiled a handy list for you:

  • Ventilate at the right time – in the morning in the city, in the evening (ideally) in the countryside. Otherwise keep windows and doors closed.
  • Dust your home with a damp cloth.
  • Only use tissues once.
  • Try a saline nasal rinse.
  • Turn off the ventilation system in your car (unless you have a pollen filter).
  • Avoid dust by not changing your clothes in your bedroom.
  • Wash your hair and replace bedding before you go to bed.
  • Fit pollen screens to your windows.