April is the cruellest month

Advice on preparing for hay fever season

Flowers in a meadow

Hay fever can make you miserable; just when you should be full of the joys of spring, the plants release their army of invisible warriors. Some people’s bodies react to tiny particles of pollen as if they are a harmful invader and an allergic response is unleashed. This happens because pollen binds to ‘mast cells’ in the eye, causing them to release histamine. This substance makes the eyes red, itchy, watery and swollen and you may have clear, stringy discharge. This is known as seasonal allergic conjunctivitis. If it happens every year, at least you can make ready. Here’s how:

Do not stop and smell the roses

Avoid contact with the source of your allergy.  If it’s pollen you’re allergic to, this means you’ll just have to avoid going anywhere where there is air! You can try staying indoors with the windows shut, monitoring the pollen count on the internet and plan your activities accordingly. If this is all too  unrealistic, more helpfully you can at least ensure you use the air conditioning in the car, to circulate the air internally. Wash your hair and hands often and wear close-fitting sunglasses when outside to act as a partial barrier. Damp dust your home with a wet cloth as often as you can.

Don’t rub it in

Whatever you do, don’t rub your eyes; you’ll make things worse and wish you hadn’t. Eye rubbing releases more histamine, the substance responsible for the itching in the first place. Blink twenty times instead, sit on your hands and recite Latin verbs, anything to distract yourself.

Nice and cool

Laying a cold compress across closed eyelids (a clean flannel soaked in cold water) will reduce swelling and redness and give temporary relief. You can use ocular lubricant drops, also known as artificial tears, as often as you need to. Preservative-free is best for allergy sufferers and if you refrigerate them, they’ll feel nice and soothing when you put them in. The lubricant will wash out some of the pollen whilst helping to stop pollen sticking to the eye.

If you find using eye drops difficult, optometrist, Dr Ian Beasley, offers some helpful advice in a recent blog - 'Expert advice on using eye drops'.

Ask your optometrist

There are some medicated antihistamine eye drops available without a prescription. These work quickly but do take the advice on the label seriously. Some can only be used for seven days or your eyes will go red again.

Mast cell stabiliser eye drops are available with or without a prescription and may be used for longer periods. These take between five and 14 days to take effect so don’t expect the immediate relief you get with an antihistamine. If you have hay fever every year, start using a mast cell stabiliser a couple of weeks before the season. Drops combining antihistamines and mast cell stabilisers can be very effective but are available on prescription only.

If you’re a contact lens wearer, see your optometrist or optician before using drops. It may be you can continue to wear your contact lenses or change to another type of lens for the hay fever season. Sometimes, wearing daily disposable lenses can be helpful. Read our advice on contact lens wear and care for more information.

Of course, other eye diseases can cause redness and discomfort so it’s always good to visit your optometrist or optician at the first sign of a problem. They can make a diagnosis, give you advice on treatment or refer you to the best place if the problem turns out to be more serious.

For more patient information and advice videos, explore our For patients section.

Ceri Smith-JaynesCeri Smith-Jaynes is OT’s Multimedia Clinical Editor and is an optometrist in independent practice in Lancashire