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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 June, 2003, 14:50 GMT 15:50 UK
Why is everyone suddenly sneezing?
Woman sneezing
Soon we will all be doing it
The sneezing season is upon us. But why are more people suffering from hay fever than ever before?

The joys of summer are quickly turning to miseries as more of us sneeze and splutter our way through the sunny months.

The past two weeks have been particularly bad for hay-fever sufferers in the UK as soaring pollen counts have taken their toll.

Grass pollen levels for June have been the highest since the scorching summer of 1976, according to the Midlands Asthma and Allergies Research Centre.

Double trouble

But it's not just pollen that's on the increase - more and more people are now enduring the warm months with bleary eyes and runny noses, the classic symptoms of hay-fever.

By about the year 2050 there will be about a 100% incidence, meaning we will all have hay-fever by then
Dr Adrian Morris
Today, 26% of Britons suffer from the summer sneezing syndrome, according to findings presented to the European Society of Allergy and Immunology last week.

This represents a doubling in the number of sufferers over the past 20 years, says Professor Stephen Durham, an allergy specialist.

But what is causing this upsurge in hay-fever sufferers?

For some, the high pollen levels alone are enough to tip them into hay-fever hell.

Here's the scrub

Experts believe we all have a fixed level of pollen toleration, which varies from person to person. So while some suffer even from the merest whiff of pollen, others only reach for the tissues when levels are very high.

Vacuuming shot
Could clean homes be making us sneeze?
But once the allergy is triggered, it doesn't take much to set it off again.

Others point the finger at fussy parents, whose insistence on cleanliness means their children are unable to fight bacteria.

According to the so-called "hygiene hypothesis" our immune systems do not get a chance to mature and so develop an excessive reaction to pollen, which is mistaken for a foreign invader.

"When we are very, very small we are all too clean so the immune system has got bit lazy and is looking for things to do. It recognises pollen and acts against that," says Jonathan Brostoff, professor of allergies at King's College London.

Pollen levels have actually been decreasing over the years as grassland and rural areas have fallen victim to development.

Pollution risk

But according to Beverley Adams-Groom, of the National Pollen Research Unit, the grass pollen count has been rising since 1999 thanks to warm springs and sufficient rains.

Rape seed crop
Not guilty - rape seed is not a major irritant to sufferers
"These sort of conditions mean the plant can operate at its optimum, so it produces more pollen."

At the same time, global warming, brought about by the Greenhouse Effect, has expanded the season, which now begins in March and April with tree pollen. Grass pollens follow in May and June.

Pollution has also been suggested as an aid to hay-fever, the theory being that when proteins from pollen grains are washed off they stick to particles in the polluted air which are inhaled.

Sceptics might say the rise is down to a growing awareness of symptoms, and that is an argument Professor Durham has some truck with.

No-one escapes

But farmers are keen to deflect charges that oil seed rape has contributed to the growth in hay-fever. The ubiquitous crop which is characterised by its yellow flowers, has a large, sticky pollen which is carried by insects rather than the wind.

But with numbers on the increase, when will the rise in cases stop? In 50 years, says allergy expert Dr Adrian Morris, by which time everyone will have hay-fever, he says.

"There's been an exponential curve in the incidence of hay fever and I think by about the year 2050 there will be about a 100% incidence, meaning we will all have hay fever by then."

Do you suffer from hay-fever? Have you come down with it for the first time recently? Have you found any particularly effective treatments? Send us your comments.

I only started suffering from hay-fever about four years ago when I came to live in the UK from Zimbabwe at age 28. Zimbabwean summers last nine months and with all the pollen and pollution around you'd think I'd be immune
Claire Dickson, UK

During my teens my hay-fever was so bad I had to have steroid injections but now I manage to avoid conventional medicine and control it with reflexology and by avoiding wheat and dairy products.

This is a bit gross but an allergy doctor once told me you can snort water up your nostrils (one at a time) and then blow it back out which washes away the pollen that is causing the reaction. Obviously not a cure which can be used in public but the relief you get is instantaneous! And it is free.
Kate Alley, UK

I've been using a homeopathic "tissue salts" remedy since I'm pregnant and not allowed to take antihistamines and you know what? They actually work. I'm terribly sceptical about homeopathy generally, but they really stave off the worse symptoms - it doesn't go completely, but gone are the "eyes like tomatoes" and throat so swollen I can barely breath symptoms of my mid-20s.
Cait Hurley, UK

I only started with hay-fever last year but it has come back this year. At the ripe old age of 34 I thought I was not a sufferer. I take a one a day tablet that really helps, a nasal spray to top it up when things get bad and eye drops.
Sharon Dolby, UK

The best remedy I've found (and which has no side effects) is three or four mugs of very strong lemon balm tea each day (using the dried leaves). Lemon balm is, among other things an anti-histamine, anti-spasmodic, calmative and anti-viral. The tea takes about 30 minutes to start working. Hope that helps someone!
Megan, Belgium

I suffered terribly from hay-fever and asthma for 26 years and then, on my first day in Seychelles - nothing. As soon as I am back in the UK however, the sneezing and the wheezing starts again.
Karl Handy, Seychelles

For 36 years not so much as a sniff, then last year, wallop! Tree pollen takes me out from March through July. Streaming nose & eyes, constant sneezing. This year itchy skin rash and coughing.
Steve, England

Oil seed rape pollen may not be an allergen, but the volatile organic compounds it gives off might as well be as the they irritate the eyes, nose and throat.
Phil , UK

I've had hay fever for about 20 years now. Despite being an "old wives tale" a teaspoon of locally made honey taken daily since the beginning of March has really helped me this summer. I believe the theory is that it contains local pollen and boosts your tolerance.
Ellie Maclaren, London, UK

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09 Jul 99  |  Medical notes
Just for the record
02 Apr 03  |  UK


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