Hay fever season is coming early this year. It's time for sufferers to ready for battle – but finding effective relief is no sneezing matter.
Experts have warned that, owing to the mild winter, hay-fever season is set to start earlier than usual this year. But I already sensed that. You could say that I have a nose for these things!
Last weekend was gloriously sunny. As is the habit in these grey and wet northern climes, I and a guest visiting from abroad melted into the milling crowds savouring the sun-tickled outdoors.
Under the surface of this hopeful scene of rebirth after the barrenness of winter, beneath the gradual blossoming of spring in which nature turns over a new leaf and people crawl out of hibernation to shed their winter skins, while hemlines get shorter as the days get longer, there lurked something more ominous. My eyes and nose were warning me that soon I would not be able to enjoy the good weather – and even the bad would be but a milder ordeal – with such casual bliss.
Hay fever, AKA allergic rhinitis, is a hypersensitivity to pollen from various plants and, depending on individual sensitivity, can cause anything from mild irritation in the eyes and a runny nose, to streaming eyes, sneezing fits, maddening itching, and asthma-like respiratory problems. In fact, researchers are becoming increasingly convinced that hay fever and asthma are related.
For many non-sufferers, hay fever does not sound like a big deal. While it generally does not have serious health consequences, the weeks of unrelenting irritation and torment can almost drive sufferers out of their minds.
Late spring to early summer are my usual season. Being a rather chronic sufferer, I am regularly seized by uncontrollable sneezing fits which actually cause my muscles to ache, not to mention the swollen, itching, streaming eyes, and sleepless nights. On bad days, coherent thought, already tricky, becomes nigh impossible. This makes work harder, especially if you are high on anti-histamines, steroid sprays and cortisone inhalers.
And, for those cursed with this unglamorous ailment, conversation, interrupted by sneezes and nose blowing, becomes a rather unattractive affair. Under the bough of a tree, before a newly sprung thought in June can travel from your mind to pollinate the ear of your lover, it is invariably nipped in the bud by nasal dyslexia. The sublime, in a frustrating comedy of errors, plunges into the slimy cesspit of your hanky.
Dry spells and heat waves are the worst, which leave sufferers dreaming of sunshine but wishing for rain. During the Big Sneeze, a trip to the country is no simple walk-in-the-park; parks themselves turn into houses of unbelievable horror: each blade of grass tickles with the gentleness of a sword and pastures turn into minefields. Sometimes, it is not inconceivable to consider gouging out your eyes or ripping off your nose.
Hay fever is also tough on the partners of sufferers. I often feel sorry for my wife when my sneezing causes an earthquake in bed, or when my sleeplessness and sniffling disturb her slumber. On bad nights, I move to another part of the house to grant her some peace and quiet. But you receive confirmation that it is certainly love when she still wants that sniffling, sneezing heap with bloodshot eyes in her bed!
Despite the number of sufferers – estimated at 12 million in the UK alone – medical science has still not found a cure. Of course, it is hardly a life-threatening condition and researchers have more important priorities, such as finding a cure for cancer and Aids and, I hope, diverting more resources to the neglected diseases of the poor, such as malaria.
Nevertheless, it is striking to observe that, in this age of technological and scientific prowess, full comprehension of hay fever, like the common cold, eludes us. We have ventured into outer space, restored sight to the nearly blind, and are on the verge of creating micro black holes, yet no one knows (nose?) how to stop the pollen-powered Big Sneeze.
Instead, what we have is a wide spectrum of pills, nasal sprays and eye drops to alleviate the symptoms, and tips for lifestyle changes which can minimise suffering. The height of hay-fever chic is a pair wrap-around sun glasses (goggles are even better) to shield against some of the pollen. Surgical masks are also in, as are prototype nasal filters which could let your nostrils flare up in that oh-so-sexy way. Caution: can knock innocent bystanders out at 10 paces if worn when pollen has already got up your nose.
Those who would rather not make such outlandish fashion statements are left with the option of shutting themselves away in a hermetically sealed chamber in the mornings and early evenings, during the highest pollen counts. More appealing tactics I've tried include going on holiday to unaffected parts of the world to escape part of the season or heading for the seaside for occasional relief. At the end of the day, for those like me who want to get on with life as normally as possible, the only option is to sneeze and bear with it.
Every year, I wishfully hope that I will outgrow my allergy. And every year it returns with a vengeance. I am sure I'm not alone in wishing that, one day, hay fever sufferers will be able to enjoy summer without this painful thorn in its side.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 4 May 2008.