Hay fever: All you need to know

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Q: What is hay fever?

A: Hay fever is a type of allergic rhinitis caused by an overreaction of the body's immune system to pollen. The allergen causes inflammation on the inside of the nose and spreads to the sinuses, eyes and throat. You can be allergic to tree pollen (released in spring), grass pollen (released from the end of spring to the start of summer) and weed pollen (released in late autumn).

Q: Why do I suffer from it?

A: Jean Emberlin, researcher and author of the study Hay fever and sport, says, "the UK has one of the highest prevalence rates in the world, with about 25% of the population having hay fever." This means that in England alone there are probably over 10 million people suffering at the same time as you. However, it is more likely you'll suffer if there is a history of asthma or eczema in the family.

Q: How can hay fever affect my running performance?

A: Hay fever can weaken nasal flow by up to 80%, impairing breathing and adversely affecting your cardiovascular performance. It also affects your concentration, as the body is more tired thanks to the immune system working overtime.

Marlon Devonish, Athens 4 x 100m Olympic gold medallist, suffers from chronic hay fever. "I'm so allergic to pollen in the air, it causes my chest to tighten when I run," he says. "If I don't manage my hay fever carefully, it can seriously affect my performance on the track."

Sneezing regularly during a race can also affect your time as one sneeze closes the eyes for a full second, upsetting your pacing. One sneeze every 60 seconds could add a minute to your 10K time or four minutes to a marathon - and it could destroy a sprinter's race.

Q: What can I do if it's affecting my training?

A: The symptoms of hay fever are often intensified by high air pollution in towns and cities so if you can, try running away from central areas. Research has found that keeping 300 metres away from main roads can hugely decrease the amount of pollution in the air and leave you feeling in better health.

Look out for areas that have less vegetation than others. If you live in London, leave the parks behind and try running along the Thames embankment where there's lower air pollution and less pollen. Wearing sunglasses while you run can also help reduce the amount of pollen getting into your eyes.

Changing your daily schedule might be inconvenient but can make all the difference. Because plants release their pollen in the early morning and late afternoon, these are the worst times to go out. Unfortunately, before and after work are also often the most convenient times to run. If you can, take your running gear to the office and get out for a lunchtime run - though make sure you are well hydrated at the warmest time of the day.

Q: What should I do before a race?

A: It's always best to get a good night's sleep before a race, but hay fever sufferers need to be especially diligent as sleep is a crucial way to strengthen the immune system.

Q: What should I do after going for a run?

A: Like mud, pollen sticks... to your clothing, your hair and if you have pets, your dog's, cat's or horse's hair. Professor Emberlin suggests avoiding hanging out your running kit to dry on high pollen days, as pollen will settle on it and affect your next run. If you have pets, brush their hair or fur and give them regular baths. If you go for a run after work, it's a good idea to have a shower first.

Q: How can I find out if it's a high pollen day?

A: Go to the Met Office website for pollen forecasts.

Q: Can I eat to relieve the symptoms?

A: Yes, you can. And monitoring your vitamin intake can make all the difference.

Vitamin A is crucial to maintaining the stability of your mucous membrane (by which we mean the lining on the inside of your nose). Trade white potato for sweet potato, supplement meat dishes with kidney and eat plenty of fresh vegetables such as spinach and pumpkin.

Vitamin B5 works hard to reduce allergic symptoms and a healthy 100mg a day will help to ward off the fever. Eggs, meat and peanut butter are all good sources, though be careful when preparing food over the summer - this fragile vitamin breaks down easily in heat.

Sufficient zinc intake is especially important for feeding your immune system - good sources of zinc include shellfish and all bran cereal, though not necessarily at the same time! 100mg of magnesium will also help - handily, you'll find it in any green vegetables.

Still hungry? Eating local honey is believed to relieve hay fever symptoms. Because the honey contains a small amount of local pollen, it acts as an inoculation to ward off hay fever symptoms.

Q: What supplements could I take?

A: If you are eating healthily, you should be getting all the goodness that you need. But it wouldn't hurt to take cod liver oil and garlic supplements which will give you a good dose of vitamin A from the cod liver, while the allicin in garlic is good for fighting viral infection.

Q: What can I do to avoid suffering from hay fever?

A: Professor Emberlin advises, "Talk to your GP or pharmacist about treatments and remedies. Because of problems with some medications consider using inert gels and natural barrier treatments such as Care Allergy Defence - this has no known side effects or interactions with other medication. This means that even if you are pregnant or are intolerant to other medicines, you can still use it."

If that doesn't work, run to the hills. According to the Professor Emberlin, coastal and hilly areas are the best places to be because they have low levels of hay fever-exacerbating air pollution.

By the time you're reading this it may be too late, but starting your hay fever treatment before the season is highly advisable, according to researchers at the University of Oslo's Centre for Immune Regulation.

Q: I just want 10 minutes' respite. Help!

A: We'd love to dazzle you with science here, but Professor Emberlin has a simple yet effective method. Shut all your windows and sit still on the sofa for 20 minutes. By the end of playing sleeping lions, the dust will have settled and you should be breathing in pollen-free air.

Q: Is there a cure?

A: In a word? No. But there are ways of treating it including antihistamine tablets, eye drops and nose sprays. If your symptoms get really bad you may be able to get a treatment called immunotherapy, which gradually increases the sufferer's exposure to the allergen under careful supervision. This can reduce the severity of the reaction - but it doesn't work for everyone.