Advice Column, Health, Lifestyle, Parenting

‘Super Allergies” Could Hit SA This Summer

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Last year was the hottest year on earth since record-taking began, but 2016 is expected to blow this record out of the water, which according to experts could trigger so-called ‘super allergies’.

Mariska van Aswegen, spokesperson for Pharma Dynamics – a leading provider of antihistamine medication – says the weather and atmospheric temperature make a huge difference to the levels of pollen and other irritants such as dust and diesel particulates in the air.

“The downside of a long, hot summer is that these irritants stay suspended in the air for longer, entering the mouth or nose and landing on the delicate mucosal layer of the upper airways. Once these particles land on the membranes that line the airways, the allergen diffuses into it, setting off an allergic reaction. Not only could symptoms worsen, but hot and dry conditions could result in an extended pollen season. The hayfever season typically starts with trees pollinating from August until October. However, grass pollen then takes over with its greatest peak from November to March.

“According to SA’s foremost authorities on aerobiology, climate change will significantly increase the amount of pollen in the air with average world temperatures forecast to rise 3°C to 4ºC by as early as 2060. Warmer temperatures allow trees to pollinate earlier and longer than usual. Spring in many countries already begins much earlier than a few decades ago, which means that pollen-producing plants, such as flowers, trees, grasses and weeds have a much longer pollen-producing season than in the past. Should the predicted combination of prolonged periods of warm, dry weather with intervals of some wet weather occur, we’ll experience high grass pollen counts for some time,” she remarks.

Not only is this depressing news for the estimated 30% of South Africans that suffer from hayfever, but the extended hot and dry conditions could also trigger nasal allergies in those who haven’t previously suffered from hayfever.

To make matters worse, people who live in towns and cities where there are higher levels of traffic pollution are at greater risk. Van Aswegen points out that the tiny particulates released by diesel fuel irritate the lining of the nasal passages and lungs making them more sensitive. “When an allergen such as pollen is also present, the airways are already primed to react, which could lead to a more severe allergic response.

“Pollution may even make other airborne allergens more potent as some pollen-producing plants exposed to high levels of nitrogen oxide may spawn modified pollen that is more potent and can elicit a more severe allergic episode, also referred to as super allergies.”

To ensure that super allergies don’t get in the way of your summer holiday plans, van Aswegen gives the following advice:


  • Get pollen-wise:check the pollen forecast in your area or holiday spot (online or in the local newspaper) to plan your outdoor activities and avoid being outside when the pollen count is highest, which is usually early in the morning and evening. Also find out which pollen you’re allergic to via a skin-prick test or blood test to detect specific IgE (immunoglobulin E) antibodies.. Remember to keep doors and windows closed during peak pollen times.


  • When the outdoors beckon: apply balm or petroleum jelly around the rim of your nose which can act as a pollen-trap. Alternatively, block pollen and other irritants by wearing a mask or bandanna over your nose and mouth. If the pollen count is very high, opt for less intense exercises. The faster you breathe, the more allergens and irritants you inhale.


  • Traveling by plane: make sure your epinephrine injection (used to treat a severe allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis) is within date and always carry a spare. Pack these in your hand luggage along with a supply of antihistamines. If you are prone to anaphylaxis, obtain a written letter from your doctor explaining why the medicine you carry is essential, to ensure you don’t get delayed at customs. If you’re traveling alone, let the pilot or air hostess know of your condition. Do the same if you’re traveling with friends and make sure they know how to administer the emergency medication. Also have the names of those who should be contacted in an emergency handy. Using a saline nasal spray every hour could also help keep your nasal membranes moist.


  • Planning a road trip: turn your car’s air conditioner on 10 minutes before you get in the car, preferably with the windows open, which will help remove dust and mould from the air-conditioning (AC) system. Keep car windows closed when driving to prevent pollen and other irritants from entering the car. If you’re hiring a car, ask for a model that comes with a high efficiency particulate filter as part of the AC system.


  • Staying at a hotel: bring your own hypoallergenic pillow and mattress cover or ask for an allergy-proof room where no smoking or pets are allowed.


  • Avoid red and swollen eyes:protect your eyes during the day by wearing sunglasses and rinsing contact lenses to get rid of dust and pollen particles. If your allergies have left you with itchy, red eyes, then take eye-drops to reduce the symptoms.


“When it comes to essential hayfever treatments, such as antihistamines, these should be taken early on in the season to be most effective. If you haven’t started, start taking them now to reduce symptoms,” concludes Van Aswegen.

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