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Seasonal nasal allergies: what you need to know

Nose and throat allergies are common conditions all year round, but especially in the spring. Consultant ear, nose and throat surgeon Mr Adam Shakir from BMI The Saxon Clinic answers frequently asked questions about allergic rhinitis and other related conditions.

Do you suffer from a stuffy nose in spring? Our consultant ear, nose and throat specialist Mr Shakir explains the causes and symptoms of allergic rhinitis and explains how nasal allergies are best diagnosed.

What causes an allergy?

An allergy is your body’s immune system reacting to something you have been exposed to that in many people would cause no reaction. Your body reacts as if the substance is dangerous, even if it is not.

Allergies are very common. Probably more than 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience one in their lifetime.

What are the most common allergies?

People can be allergic to all manner of substances.

The most common allergens include:

  • Grass and tree pollen (this allergy is known as hay fever or seasonal allergic rhinitis)
  • Dust mites
  • Animal dander or fur
  • Food (often nuts, fruits, shellfish, eggs or cows’ milk)
  • Insect bites or stings
  • Certain medicines
  • Household chemicals (e.g., those found in cleaning or personal care products)
  • Latex
  • Mould

Are allergies dangerous?

Most allergies and allergic reactions are mild and can be managed.

Some allergies are serious and can be life-threatening, leading to an extreme immune response known as anaphylaxis. People with these kinds of allergies need to be very careful to avoid the trigger substance.

However, it is far more common to have a mild allergy that can be managed either with medication or by avoiding the allergen.

For most people, allergies will be more of a nuisance than a danger.

Why do I get allergic reactions in my eyes, nose and throat?

Your eyes, nose and throat are particularly sensitive because they are more exposed to your environment than other parts of your body.

A reaction in these areas is your immune system’s response to a perceived threat (the allergen) – it’s trying to stop it from going further into your body.

The upper airways (such as your nose and throat) are a very common place to have an allergic reaction.

When an allergy to airborne substances causes swelling in your nose (which often causes cold-like symptoms), it’s known as allergic rhinitis. This is very common in the UK; it’s thought to affect about 1 in 5 people.

You might also experience symptoms in your lower airways (windpipe and lungs). Over the last 10-15 years there has been a move to recognise that allergy symptoms of the upper and lower airways should be treated together to get the best results.

Why do I suffer from allergies more in spring?

If you have pollen allergies – for example, if you suffer from hay fever – these will often be seasonal because different pollens are released at different times of the year.

The pollen season starts in late February when trees start to grow and give off pollen. Grass pollens are more prevalent in May and June, while weed pollen levels peak in July and August. Your symptoms may well go up and down with the pollen counts.

Different people react to different types of pollen, though the most common pollen allergy is grass.

What if my allergy is year-round?

When you experience allergies depends on what triggers your immune system. If it’s something that’s present year-round, you might well experience nasal allergy symptoms year-round, which is also known as perennial rhinitis.

Common substances that cause year-round allergic trouble include house dust mites, mould spores and pets.

How do I know if I have a nose and throat allergy?

Common symptoms of nasal allergies include:

  • Sneezing
  • Blocked and/or runny nose
  • Itchy, watery and red eyes

Common allergy symptoms in the mouth and throat include:

  • Itchiness or rawness of the throat
  • Itchiness or rawness in the roof of your mouth
  • A dry cough

Allergies are not the only cause of a blocked nose or sore throat. If your symptoms are affecting your quality of life, sleep, ability to work or school performance, it might be time to consider allergy testing and treatment.

How are allergies tested for?

Skin prick tests

For non-life-threatening allergies, one testing option involves pricking the skin with a needle that carries a small amount of a substance you might be allergic to. You will likely be tested in this way for various common allergens.

The size of your reaction (if any) will indicate your body’s tolerance for different substances. This is a common test and only mildly discomforting. You will be given instructions beforehand as using certain medications can affect results.

Blood tests

Blood tests are another alternative, or they might be used alongside skin prick tests. Various blood cell counts and particular substance reaction levels will give your doctor an impression of whether you are currently reacting to something and what that trigger might be.

Skin patch testing is another method of diagnosing allergies, but this would commonly be used when your skin is reacting to substances, rather than with a nasal or throat allergy that is caused by substances carried by the air.

What should I do if I do have an allergy?

If you are diagnosed with an allergy, the ideal response is to take action in two ways.

The first is to remove or reduce exposure to what you are allergic to. This should have been identified or at least narrowed down by your allergy test results.

Secondly, you might want to seek treatment to reduce your body’s reactions to the allergen(s). This is done with medications.

Depending on the area of your body causing most discomfort, you may benefit from taking antihistamine eye drops, nasal steroids or antihistamine spray, or perhaps an inhaler for your throat and chest. Oral antihistamine tablets can also help.

If your symptoms are severe, you might be prescribed a short course of steroid tablets to reduce them, especially if you have an important occasion coming up.

For some individuals, desensitising therapy is an option. This is carried out by an allergy specialist and will aim to reduce your body’s reaction to a particular substance and by doing so reduce your symptoms.

After your allergy test results, your doctor will give you advice on which approach is best for you.

Is surgery helpful to treat nasal allergies?

Some people happen to have anatomical blockages in their noses that might stop sprays getting in effectively. In this case, they might be recommended surgery to correct the issue.

But this surgery would just be to allow medicines to work better. It’s not a cure for the allergy.

Can I develop an allergy?

Allergies most commonly develop in children or young adults, but can start at any age. It’s possible to develop an allergy to something that has previously caused you no problems at all.

Do allergies run in families?

If your parents had nasal allergies, then you are more likely to also have nasal allergies. 75% of asthmatics also have nasal allergy symptoms.

Where can I get more advice?

In terms of good quality information on the internet, I usually guide my patients towards the Allergy UK charity website or to the NHS advice on allergies.

If you would like to have an allergy test or are struggling to manage your allergies, you can speak to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist by calling us on 0808 250 8160 or booking online.

For more information and advice about managing your allergies, speak to a GP by video today. Don’t let your allergies be a daily battle.

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