Hay fever is rife at the moment and my GP surgery had an influx of sufferers this last week. We expect to see people when the pollen count is high, but this, combined with the unusually hot weather, is putting considerable pressure on Britain's healthcare services.
The severity and breadth of symptoms are prompting many people to seek medical help - and some patients I've seen didn't realise the underlying cause. A runny nose, itchy eyes and endless sneezing are the signs most people know about, but you'd be surprised at the number who think they must be suffering with a virus or something else, particularly those who haven't had hay fever before.
In reality, the symptoms can be much broader and I understand why patients might mistake the effects of a pollen allergy for other conditions. For example, people don't automatically associate hay fever with a cough. This is actually caused by mucus from the nose dripping down through the throat; combine this with some of the other symptoms and it can feel like a cold that just won't go away.
Defence against hay fever
I think a lack of awareness of symptoms and confusion about treatment is resulting in many visiting their GP - when they could use over-the-counter treatments at home.
Patients are often surprised by how effective a small antihistamine tablet can be at subduing a pollen reaction. They work by combating the histamine chemical your body produces, which goes into overdrive in response to the pollen. Tablets can significantly reduce symptoms, as can eye drops and nasal sprays. Pharmacists can offer useful advice about all of these, but many patients think they need to see their doctor.
I advise my patients to try and avoid the triggers too. Although you can't always stay inside with the windows closed, you can protect your eyes to a certain extent with wraparound sunglasses and by avoiding cutting the grass if you can. Alcohol is best avoided too, as it contains histamines that could make hay fever worse.
Hay fever is particularly common among patients with other allergies, eczema and asthma. About 80 per cent of people with asthma have a pollen allergy too, which can trigger or worsen their asthma symptoms.
Some find hay fever quite distressing and feel generally unwell - particularly if they don't realise what's causing it or if it is exacerbating another condition. Hay fever can cause headaches and tiredness. Check the small print on your antihistamine package, as fatigue can be a medication side effect too. A build up of mucus can also cause facial pain and earache, in some cases leading to a middle ear infection or sinusitis.
As with a lot of conditions, symptoms and longevity will vary from person to person and you may need to see a GP for prescription medication if over-the-counter drugs aren't helping, or if you experience complications.
The effects of high pollen counts are being felt across our healthcare services. The Royal College of General Practitioners has reported a surge of allergic rhinitis - the cold-like sneezing and runny nose that can be caused by pollen - in the London region in the past couple of weeks. There has been an uplift elsewhere in the country too - which I've witnessed firsthand.
It's not just GPs who've seen a rise in patients. People are even going to A&E. Last weekend, Doncaster Royal Infirmary advised patients to consult their GP or pharmacist in the first instance, as many had been turning up for help with hay fever symptoms during the spell of extremely hot weather.
With 'very high' pollen counts due in parts of the UK again in the next few days, we're bound to see more cases. So brace yourself for more sneezing and remember that the symptoms may go beyond a sniffly nose and itchy eyes. Hay fever can start in adulthood, so that summer cold you think you have could be a summer allergy.
You should be able to manage it without seeing your GP, but if you become concerned about your symptoms or it is causing you or your child distress, don't be afraid to seek medical advice. Try to give A&E a miss though, unless it's a genuine emergency.