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Hay fever can have debilitating effects
Hay fever can have debilitating effects

With many hay fever sufferers reporting this is the worst season in years, experts say it is time we took the disease seriously. The number of people afflicted by the annual assault on our sinuses, also known as allergic rhinitis, has doubled in the past decade or so and as a result the pharmacy tills are ringing.

Record amounts are being spent on medications to alleviate the classic symptoms of runny nose, itchy eyes and cough, with close to $230 million spent on intranasal corticosteroids (nasal sprays) and oral antihistamines in 2010, in Australia.

Common triggers for hay fever include pollen, house dust mites, animal fur and fungal spores.

Richard Loh, president of the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA), said hay fever was dismissed as "just a snotty nose" by many but in reality it posed a significant challenge to people's quality of life, especially for those with moderate to severe disease.

Dr Loh, who is also head of immunology at Princess Margaret Hospital, said research had shown that students with hay fever during exam time were 40 per cent more likely to drop a grade - so an A student may only manage a B in a crucial exam - which was a real concern for Year 12 students currently undertaking their WA Certificate of Education exams.

Hay fever had also been linked to car crashes and workplace accidents, especially among those taking old-style sedating antihistamines for symptom relief.

"Taking a sedating antihistamine is like going to work drunk because you have a bit of a haze over you; there are more accidents and people are less productive," Dr Loh said.

"A lot of drivers don't realise that if they have hay fever and they pop a (sedating antihistamine such as) Phenergan or Polaramine, they could actually put themselves and others at risk because they will potentially fall asleep at the wheel and their reflex action is diminished."

Treating hay fever could also benefit children diagnosed with ADHD, one in five of whom showed marked improvement in their behaviour when their hay fever was treated, studies had shown.

"People say 'Well it doesn't matter, no-one dies', but when people really sit down and look at the studies and they look at the impact at school, the impact on work and the cost to the community they see how significant it really is," Dr Loh said.

Lung Institute of WA medical director Philip Thompson agreed, saying people with chronic sinus disease, which was also often linked to persistent cough, could lead a miserable life.

"Their sleep quality is very poor, their ability to work is affected and their quality of life is extremely poor, but because it doesn't kill you or have you rushing to hospital in an emergency, it doesn't really get the support through the whole medical community or through government health dollars," Professor Thompson said.

"You can imagine what living with someone with a chronic cough is like, it drives both the patient and their families crazy. It makes social interaction very limited - you can't go to the movies, you can't be in a meeting, because all you are doing is coughing all the time."

Dr Loh said many people did not realise there were now many good treatments available which did not make you sleepy.

But effective treatment can be costly, with some patients forking out up to $100 a month to treat hay fever symptoms.

No hay fever medications are subsidised under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and non-sedating antihistamines are more expensive than the old-style sedating antihistamines.

Professor Thompson said the neighbour's freshly mown lawn was often wrongly blamed for the onset of hay fever symptoms. In fact, grass pollens blown in from 100km or more away on the easterly winds were a more likely culprit.

"The vast majority with grass pollen allergy are reacting to rye grass and its relatives and that is usually out in the Wheatbelt and is often grown for hay production, and a lot of it has gone into the wild as well," he said.