Now the hay fever season is upon us, millions of people will be coughing and sneezing and wiping their eyes. Around 25 per cent of sufferers can blame birch pollen. These beautiful trees release their pollen in March and early April, depending where you are in the UK and the weather. Grass pollen misery comes later and peaks in mid June. Then you have the mould allergies to look forward to in September.
Luckily, I grew out of my own pollen allergy when I was 94 (I am now 104 years old) so I don’t have to suffer the miseries of hay fever anymore. I don’t know why, but suddenly I didn’t react to pollen. Maybe advancing years is the secret cure!
More seriously, it saddens me that hay fever is becoming so much more prevalent than it used to be. Pollen counts in London have been rising steadily since I started the first monitoring of pollen grain in the air using specially machines on rooftops in the capital back in the 1950s. This is probably due to climate change, which is causing warmer, drier summers and extended growing seasons in the UK, combined with rising pollution which helps to keep pollen airborne for longer. Nitrogen oxide, which is a by-product of vehicle combustion, is also a good plant fertiliser and promotes growth. Invading plants species including ragweed, which produces potent allergenic pollen, have been shown to produce much higher volumes of pollen when they grow near roadside as opposed to meadows and riverbanks.
We can’t turn the clock back and reverse climate change that has already happened, (although we should introduce tougher measures to tackle pollution in our cities). However, we can use tried and tested techniques like desensitisation therapy to reduce the severity of attacks. When I was at St Mary’s Hospital in London, we used to keep patients in for 12 days, gradually increasing the dose of the allergen that was causing them to have severe allergy symptoms. It worked well but it was very specific. We could make someone less sensitive to a particular allergen but another similar allergen would cause a full-blown attack. Similarly, we found that patients who had had this treatment had to maintain daily exposure to their allergen at a carefully controlled ‘safe’ level, otherwise their allergy would return with a vengeance. Avoidance is the very best way to not get allergies like hay fever, so I always recommend keeping windows closed during the peak pollen seasons. Or just wait until you are approaching your centenary and it may go away all by itself.