The Season For Sneezin’
This has been a grim year for allergy sufferers, as it’s seen some of the highest recorded pollen counts in history. “Due to the changing weather patterns, ‘thunderstorm asthma’ is becoming more common in certain parts of the world,” says Professor Jonny Peter, head of the UCT Lung Institute’s Allergy Unit. “It’s a weather phenomenon that occurs on a hot day/night when there is a lot of moisture present before a cold front, and strong winds sweep up vast amounts of pollen into the sky, which is then sent pouring down, causing major respiratory distress.”
Peter is not alone in his diagnosis for the nation at large.
“Rising temperatures are extending the growing season and duration of pollen production – enabling weeds and grasses to triple in size. Think pollen on steroids – exacerbating hay fever symptoms,” says aerobiologist Dilys Berman.
“Pollen, mould and insect stings are common during the warmer months,” says Alisha Mackintosh, allergy and immunology portfolio manager for Pharma Dynamics.
The major culprit behind SA’s hay fever woes is grass pollen, because of the long flowering season and also as a result of the different grass species that pollinate at different times. Mackintosh explains that the alien trees planted in South Africa are also responsible for triggering hay fever symptoms, as well as conjunctivitis, as these Northern Hemisphere trees are wind-pollinated. Our indigenous trees, on the other hand, are largely insect- or bird-pollinated.
“Depending on which area you are in, the most common allergies during winter are mould due to areas with high winter rains and less ventilation, or dust mites in the drier areas. Animal dander can also be a common culprit with them being indoors more during the cold seasons,” says Mackintosh.
Location, location, location
“Pollen counts vary considerably across different SA regions. Alarmingly though, our data is more than 20 years old and some parts of the country have never been monitored,” says Peter. You can visit www.pollencount.co.za for the latest counts per region, as well as to contribute to getting more accurate pollen readings.
Peter suggests that if you struggle with an itchy, runny or congested nose, itchy, red or watery eyes, sore throat and post-nasal drip, you probably have hay fever or allergic rhinitis, but it’s important to identify which airborne allergens you are allergic to. He recommends doing a blood test or a skin prick test to find out.
While it’s difficult to entirely avoid exposure to – especially airborne – allergens, there are over-the-counter treatments such as antihistamines that have proven effective for a runny and stuffy nose. “Decongestant nasal sprays also help to shrink the inflamed nasal passages, which will allow sufferers to breathe a little easier, but shouldn’t be taken for longer than a few days consecutively,” advises Mackintosh.
A spike in South Africa’s pollen production has been flagged by local scientists, and people who don’t normally suffer from hay fever may start to.
Scientists predict that pollen counts will quadruple in the next 20 to 30 years.
Grass pollen in Cape Town increased fourfold last spring after the 2015-2017 rain-scarce winters.
Winter or summer allergies can often be mistaken for a cold, with similar symptoms such as a runny or congested nose and/or sore throat. If it persists for longer than two weeks, be sure to visit your doctor or allergist to get the right diagnosis and treatment.