It’s almost summer in the northern hemisphere. For many of us, this is our favorite time of year. For hay fever sufferers, however, it can be an endless nightmare of wheezing, sniffing and red eyes.
Hay fever (also known by its medical name; allergic rhinitis) is a common condition. Researchers estimate that up to 40% of people in the US suffer from some form of hay fever, and this rate is increasing.
It’s also thought that between 48% and 68% of hay fever sufferers also experience sleep disturbances. And a couple of bad nights’ sleep can make the miserable symptoms associated with hay fever even worse.
So as we head into the season when hay fever is most common, I thought it’d be timely to consider how hay fever affects your sleep and what you can do to limit sleep problems when the pollen count is high.
What is hay fever?
Hay fever occurs during the months when plants are release their pollen into the air. Even though pollen isn’t dangerous, your body’s immune system treats it like a harmful intruder, such as a bacteria or virus.
And somewhat unfairly, it’s actually your body’s natural defenses that cause the symptoms of hay fever, rather than the pollen itself.
You’ll be familiar with common hay fever symptoms such as sneezing, itchy eyes and congestion – all symptoms with the potential to disrupt sleep if they’re bad enough.
The type of pollen that causes hay fever changes during the year. Most hay fever sufferers are allergic to grass pollen, which is released for a short period between May and June.
However, different trees release pollen between February and June. And following that, weeds release their pollen between June and September.
In total, this means that there are plants releasing pollen for 9 months of the year, between February and October (see the diagram below).
Diagram 1: Pollen throughout the year
You’ll see that the summer months of June and July are particularly bad for hay fever sufferers. In these months, trees, grass and weeds are all releasing pollen into the atmosphere.
How hay fever affects sleep: a vicious cycle
Researchers have found that hay fever often causes sufferers to wake up suddenly gasping for breath. Congestion causes this unpleasant symptom, disrupting sleep throughout the night and making you feel tired and sluggish the next day.
Feeling congested and having a blocked nose are a major cause of sleep disturbance and can stop you from falling asleep. As you might already know, congestion often feels worse at night.
The graph below shows the discomfort caused by hay fever congestion at different times of the day and night.
Diagram 2: The discomfort reported by hay fever sufferers during an average day
You can see that the discomfort caused by hay fever starts to rise at midnight and peaks at 6 am. Most of this reported discomfort is a result of nasal congestion.
The discomfort lessens during the day, but by this stage you’ll probably be feeling the negative effects of a missed night’s sleep. The following night, your hay fever symptoms will rise up again, disturbing another night’s sleep. So hay fever can put you into a vicious, sleepless, cycle.
What can you do about it?
Below are some helpful tips to help you improve your sleep during the hay fever season:
Some scientists claim that the best way to avoid hay fever is to limit your exposure to pollen. Of course, most people can’t avoid going outside for the entire summer!
Neither is it very helpful advice if you’re already suffering from hay fever, but it shows that planning ahead can make your symptoms more manageable.
So for example, avoiding being outside when the grass is being cut, or cutting it early in the day are steps you could take.
Be aware of the pollen count
You need to keep an eye on the pollen count for your local area. This is particularly important between May and August when many different plants start to release their pollen into the atmosphere.
Sites such as Accu Weather can provide allergy advice for your local area. You should check these levels in the same way as you would check a weather report, and take extra precautions when the levels are higher.
Keep pollen out of the bedroom
When you see the pollen count in your area increasing, it’s time to take action. Try and avoid spending too much time outside on these days and keep your doors and windows shut.
This is especially important at night when you go to bed. As the pollen count is at its highest during the hot summer months, many people open their windows to let the cooler air in.
Naturally, this also lets in pollen. So if you can bear it, keep the windows shut and perhaps try one of these ways to keep cool at night.
Remember: Pollen clings to bed sheets, clothes and hair
Vacuuming regularly during times when the pollen count is high is an effective way of getting rid of any pollen that has made its way into your bedroom. Changing your bed linen will also remove traces of pollen that could disturb your sleep.
If you have to go outside, make sure that you shower and change your clothes as soon as you get in. Pollen can land in your hair and on your clothes when you’re outside, gaining free entrance to your house when you return.
Use a little Vaseline to catch pollen particles
The UK’s National Health Service recommends applying Vaseline around your nostrils. This will help to catch particles of pollen and stop them entering your nose, reducing the hay fever symptoms that disrupt your sleep. Alternatively, Coconut oil has a similar effect.
Try using a nasal spray
What can you do if you feel the dreaded hay fever symptoms starting? Treatments that help your nasal congestion (such as nasal sprays) are likely to be the most useful for helping you sleep.
As we’ve already seen, nasal congestion is worse at night and is the symptom most responsible for sleep disturbances.
Avoid smoking when the pollen count is high
Researchers have also shown that cigarette smoking can make symptoms of congestion worse. So it’s a good extra motivator to try to cut down on the number of cigarettes you smoke when the pollen count is high.
Hay fever and insomnia aren’t often talked about together, but sleepless nights are a common side effect of a high pollen count. In fact, hay fever symptoms are at their worst during the normal hours of sleep. And they can have a real, negative impact on your quality of life.
Despite the fact that so many of us regularly suffer from hay fever, there are few effective treatments to help you manage your symptoms and get a good night’s sleep.
However, with careful planning and preventative actions, you can manage your hay fever symptoms. And although it might not be realistic depending on your daily responsibilities and lifestyle, reducing your exposure to pollen throughout the day could help you sleep better at night.
Do you suffer from Hay Fever? Does it stop you from sleeping properly? Have you found anything that helps you manage the symptoms at night? Feel free to share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below!