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It’s October here in the southern hemisphere and after a colder than expected winter in some areas, spring has well and truly arrived with newly greened trees and wild flowers blossoming in city parks and out in the vast countryside too. Whilst in Sydney recently the temperatures reached the low 30’s and a strong swirling breeze tossed hats and papers into the air. But there was something else in the air in Sydney that was making life really miserable for literally hundreds of thousands of its occupants - pollen!
Around the world there seems to have developed the great idea that London Plain Trees are fantastic for the urban streetscape. And yes they do grow quickly, and they do grow to some tremendous sizes and yes they do provide welcome shade in the long hot summers that we all like to experience. But someone forgot to tell the planners about the enormous number of dust balls that these trees produce in spring time, and which you can see as a visible cloud being swept down streets and into the noses, eyes and ears of all pedestrians in it’s path.
Sydney was coughing and sneezing, and rubbing its collective red eyes as this onslaught of nature’s desire to reproduce its species - in this case the mighty Plain tree - invaded every exposed human mucous membrane in sight! This was hay fever on a grand scale.
But although the London plain tree may be a dramatic example of how hay fever can affect whole cities at a time, it’s certainly not the only cause of the problem - not by a long way.
Grasses are everywhere, and all of us love to spend time in a park perhaps eating our lunch under the welcome shade of a tree whilst admiring the bounty of beautiful flowers planted by accommodating City gardeners - but for many this can lead to an afternoon of sneezing and itching, and for those with asthma, it may even bring on an asthma attack.
So what is hay fever and what can we do to reduce it’s impact on us at this glorious time of year?
All plants produce pollen. It’s a part of the sexual reproductive process of all plants on this planet, and plant pollen is the equivalent of our human male sperm cells. We males of the species will produce millions of sperm in the attempt to fertilze one female egg. Plants do a similar thing but in a much more public way - especially in the case of the London Plain tree - and plants do it on a massive scale! Amazingly, scientists have collected samples of ragweed pollen 400 miles out at sea and 2 miles high in the air. And it’s usually these prolific, allergy-causing plants that produce pollen in such huge quantities. For example, a single ragweed plant can generate a million grains of pollen every day. With all those pollen particles looking for someone to love, problems will invariably arise.
One zoologist humorously expressed the cause of hay fever in this way, “ he said that what the pollen is attempting to do is actually trying to mate with the inside of your nose”
The result of this plant human interaction is that our bodies rapidly respond to this foreign plant based protein invader and set off the following chain of reactions. Firstly it tries to make it more difficult for the pollen to settle on the surface of our mucous membranes by producing watery mucus in increased quantities in order to try and wash it off - hence the runny noses and watery eyes. Then it tries to literally distance itself from the invading protein by making the lining of the mucous membranes thicker - so that anything that may be trying to breach our surface defenses has further to penetrate. This leads to swelling of the lining of the nose and the conjunctiva of the eyes. And that’s why hay fever sufferers get runny congested noses and bleary watery eyes. The pollen also triggers an “allergic” response by the bodies immune system, and that leads to the itchiness as well. For those who suffer from eczema/dermatitis caused by hayfever - usually as a response to grasses and pollens - then not only do they suffer from nose and eye problems but their skin also reacts with furiously itchy areas that are almost impossible to stop oneself from scratching.
Unfortunately we cannot stop what nature does in abundance each year, producing tons of male plant gametes - or pollen particles - that are hungrily seeking a female partner to fuse with, but we can do somethings to reduce the impact of the resulting hayfever in our daily lives, especially in the spring time.
The first thing to try and do is to avoid going out when all those pollens are in the air - such as a on a hot windy day in springtime on a Sydney street! Stay indoors where possible and keep the windows closed: if you do have to venture out then avoid the windy times and cover your eyes and face where possible to reduce the bulk of air born particles. And once you return home then literally wash your eyes and nose with appropriate fluids to clear any pollen that may have attached themselves on to those lining, surface membranes. For the eyes, simple liquid tears will do the job and for the nose there are saline based irrigation sprays that can be brought over the counter at the pharmacy to do just this. It’s simple, safe and effective.
Some may like to get their retaliation in first by taking a non sedating anti-histamine that will block the body’s immune response to the pollen - again these are simple and safe and can be obtained from your local pharmacy.
If symptoms have started and nasal congestion is causing a problem, then try a mild steroid based nasal spray to help reduce the swelling within the nose - for short term 7 to 10 day usage this is quite safe: but if symptoms are failing to settle then a quick chat with your family Doctor would be in order.
For those who suffer an annual agony as a result of hay fever, there is the choice of de- sensitization. This is an ongoing treatment and is usually conducted over a couple of years - although some physicians do use an accelerated program with similar success rates to the more traditional method - and which aim to dampen the body’s immune response to a specific plant based protein.
Spring is a fantastic time of the year - perhaps the best time when it comes to nature putting on her glorious show for us - but there are downsides for those who suffer from hay fever. Hopefully the suggestions I have made today will help you to enjoy the best of springtime with the least amount of irritation.