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2 Jul 2021

Hay fever: do natural remedies actually work?

From saline sprays to 'allergy wipes,' find out which natural alternatives may be worth trying and which you can skip

The pollen count is high at the moment, and many people feel like their hay fever is worse than ever. Can natural remedies provide any extra relief?

In addition to the standard arsenal of antihistamine tablets, medicated nasal sprays and eye drops that are used to keep common allergy symptoms at bay, we've noticed more and more 'natural' hay fever products popping up.

We've looked at a some of the most common options to find out what they do, and talked to experts to find out whether they are worth considering.

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Why use a natural hay fever remedy?

Bee on a flower with a shallow depth of field

While antihistamine tablets work inside the body to reduce the histamine production caused by allergens, and steroid nasal sprays create an anti-inflammatory response in the nasal passage, natural remedies tend to work on a more external level to flush out irritants, or provide a barrier to reduce contact with allergens.

For most people there's no real health or safety reason to opt for natural products, though it may be a matter of personal preference.

Regular antihistamine tablets, and medicated remedies like nasal sprays and eye drops are generally well tolerated, with mild side effects. Modern antihistamine tablets like loratadine and cetirizine shouldn't cause drowsiness like older types of antihistamines do.

You might choose to try a natural remedy in addition to antihistamines you're already taking - to get on top of troublesome symptoms for example.

They can also be an option if you're pregnant or breastfeeding and want to avoid certain medications (but you should seek pharmacist or GP advice in these situations), or if there's something else you're taking that might cause an interaction - this isn't common but does include some older types of antidepressants.

Natural products aren't automatically safe or side-effect free

English Pharmacy Board Chair Thorrun Govind told us that, while natural remedies can provide a wider range of options for people, you can't assume that just because a product is marketed as 'natural,' it's automatically safer than regular medicine, or won't have side effects.

Something else to consider is that natural remedies don't necessarily have the clinical evidence behind them that medications like antihistamine tablets do.

Pharmacist Michael Line agress, saying the treatments with the most clinical evidence behind them are antihistamine tablets and steroid nasal sprays.

Of course, this doesn't mean that some natural remedies aren't worth a try. We've looked at a range of natural hay fever products below to help you decide what's right for you.

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Barrier balms

Barrier balms, like Hay Max (£6.99), work simply by trapping allergens such as dust or pollen before they enter the body and cause a reaction, says Which? Scientific Advisor Kamisha Darroux.

These balms can be helpful when you need to be outside in close proximity to triggers like pollen. But Kamisha says that for the same effect you could also use Vaseline or lip balm.

Be aware that the mechanism for using barrier balm is quite rudimentary. If you have a runny nose or are sneezing lots you'll likely need to reapply, and it's still possible for allergens to get in through your eyes and mouth and cause symptoms.

Natural nasal spray

Nasal sprays that are marketed as 'natural' tend to be a simple saline (salt water) solution, such as Piri Natural's Daily Nasal Wash (£8.69/100ml), though some claim to help to create a barrier using ectoin, a marine algae (Fusion Allergy spray, £7.99/20ml).

Saline sprays are designed to flush out allergens from the nasal cavity, and can help with nasal dryness and congestion.

They don't have the anti-inflammatory active ingredients that medicated, steroid nasal sprays do.

A Cochrane study in 2018 said 'there is not enough evidence to know whether nasal saline irrigation is better, worse or the same as using intranasal steroids.'

Govind notes that by their nature, any nasal spray (natural or medicated) can have side effects like nose irritation, stinging or sneezing, and even cause dryness - the opposite intended effect - and you can still use too much of a natural nasal spray.

Natural allergy eye drops

Similarly to the natural nasal sprays, natural eye drops or sprays are simply intended to wash out and lubricate the eyes, with some that are meant to do this and also leave a protective moisture film on the eye (such as Murine Eye Mist, £10/10ml).

Govind says if there's pollen around, it's less likely to stay in the eyes if you're using an eye wash or drops.

She explains that the difference with medicated eye drops for hay fever is that they have an anti-allergic active ingredient - sodium cromoglicate, which works to reduce inflammation.

Some preservatives used in medicated eye drops might cause irritation, especially if you use soft contact lenses, so this could be a reason to opt for a preservative-free product.

Allergy lozenges

Govind says allergy lozenges are likely to work in the same way as any other cough sweets and lozenges by lubricating the throat and relieving some of the sensation of itching and dryness.

The allergy lozenges above (Fusion Allergy, £5.59/24pk) contain an ingredient called ectoin, also found in some natural nose sprays, which is said to help create a protective water coating over mucous membranes, preventing allergens from penetrating (though it's worth noting that while there are some promising studies into ectoin, there haven't been large-scale clinical trials).

This should also be the basic function of other throat soothing lozenges, though again the clinical evidence for non-medicated lozenges is minimal - so it depends on personal preference.

Allergy wipes and cooling masks

Products like these might be marketed for allergies, but you could quite easily replicate their effect with a DIY method like washing your face or applying a cool towel.

Govind notes that while wipes like these might be convenient, they're not the most eco-friendly product and aren't strictly necessary.

She says products like these are nice additions to treatment that are about making you feel comfortable, but that you don't need to buy specific allergy products to do this, and they can be costly.

The other natural way? Avoid hay fever triggers

Garden full of wildflowers

If you want to minimise reliance on meds, there are lifestyle changes you can make to minimise your exposure to hay fever triggers on days when pollen count is high (though admittedly after many months of lockdown they may not sound like much fun).

These include keeping windows shut, staying inside if you can in the mornings and evenings, when the pollen count tends to be higher, and not drying your washing outside or mowing the lawn.

If you need to go out, you can try to block pollen with a barrier balm and wraparound sunglasses.

Wearing a face mask should also provide some protection from allergens getting through. See our best-rated face coverings for the most affordable and effective options.

Bear in mind that with traditional hay fever medications and barrier balms, acting early is best (e.g. before you head out), to prevent symptoms getting stuck in.

What to do if nothing helps your hay fever

If you find your hay fever symptoms can't be managed with over the counter products, it's best to talk to your pharmacist or see your GP. Find out more with the NHS hay fever guide.

You should also be vigilant about the possibility it might be Covid instead. If in doubt, get a test.

*Prices correct as of 1 July 2021