One in five people in the UK suffers from hay fever, and the season is starting earlier each year. What can we do to stop ourselves turning into sneezy, grumpy or dopey? Annalisa Barbieri sniffs out remedies

This time I got it on tape. Because every year, come the end of May my partner, who suffers from hay fever, becomes intolerable. "You just don't understand how I feel," he tells me ten hundred times a day. When, finally, he resorts to over-the-counter pharmaceuticals to ease the discomfort, they have the rather unattractive side effect of making him lose his at-other-times very fine sense of humour or making him feel totally zonked out. That's if they work at all. It seems a rotten way to spend a summer.

This time I got it on tape. Because every year, come the end of May my partner, who suffers from hay fever, becomes intolerable. "You just don't understand how I feel," he tells me ten hundred times a day. When, finally, he resorts to over-the-counter pharmaceuticals to ease the discomfort, they have the rather unattractive side effect of making him lose his at-other-times very fine sense of humour or making him feel totally zonked out. That's if they work at all. It seems a rotten way to spend a summer.

Antihistamines and steroid nose sprays only deal with the symptoms, never the cause; and according to the British Allergy Foundation, you really need to start using the treatments "about two weeks before your symptoms start; if you wait until you're reacting these products have a hell of an uphill struggle".

What I've never understood is why he and all the other hay fever sufferers I know don't do something to prepare for the onslaught every year (although I'm exactly the same about PMT: each month I forget how bad it is and never do anything until the only option is to reach for the horse tranquillisers). "The thing is," says my boyfriend, "when you're suffering, you just want immediate relief, and that means reaching for pills and sprays. When you're not suffering, you forget how bad it is so can't be bothered to look into the whys and wherefores." So last year, at the height of his misery, I taped him going on about how awful he felt, to remind him just how bad it is.

I started playing it back to him this week, because the hay fever season, which gets earlier each year, has already started for those affected by tree pollen. Apparently, this year's weather conditions have conspired to produce a bumper crop of birch pollen.

I don't – yet – suffer from hay fever, unlike the 13 million people (around one in five) in this country who do. But there's still time, because every summer more and more people succumb – and no one knows exactly why. Some say it's pollution, others say it's all the rapeseed fields that now surround us, or that we're more allergy-prone because we eat all the wrong foods. Last month, researchers at Harvard published a report showing that high levels of carbon dioxide in a greenhouse atmosphere caused ragweed to go bonkers, growing taller and bigger and spurting out more seeds. Ragweed is not a problem for us here, it's a plant that grows in America – where it's the number-one cause of hay fever – and in mid-Europe. But it does raise interesting questions about what effects high levels of carbon dioxide have on the pollen production of other plants. Relevant because, according to my bedtime reading, The Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (March issue), CO2 levels have gone up 29 per cent since pre-industrial times and they're set to double in the next 50 to 100 years.

So what's a poor, red-eyed, red-nosed and thoroughly miserable person to do? The first thing to find out is which of the three pollens affects you: tree, grass (which starts having an effect around May) or weed (July). If you're not sure, you need to go and have an allergy test. You might not have hay fever at all; a test last year by Ohio University found that 65 per cent of people taking hay fever remedies had nothing more serious than a cold. Then, start preparing yourself.

"Eight out of 10 people [who suffer from asthma, eczema or hay fever] are deficient in essential fatty acids," says Daniela Kenworthy, a medical herbalist at Farmacia, a pharmacy and clinic that combines the conventional and the complementary. Fatty acids such as linoleic, linolenic and gamma-linolenic – I like to think of them as the fatty-acid sisters – are important because they act as powerful anti-inflammatories. So one of the very first things you can do is start eating more walnuts, flax and pumpkin seeds; and fatty fish such as mackerel, sardines and herring, which contain omega-3 oil.

Some people, however, lack the enzyme necessary to convert "the more ubiquitous linoleic and linolenic acids to gamma-linolenic acid and so will need to take a supplement like evening primrose or borage oil," says Daniela Kenworthy. She recommends Biocare Essential Balance (£8.50). It's never a bad idea, anyway, to be up on your fatty acid intake because fatty acids are happy acids. If you're deficient in them it can make you depressed.

To prepare your eyes, nose and throat for the battle, Kenworthy recommends a three-pronged approach. "I would look at a herbal remedies, nutritional supplements and also avoid any foods that might aggravate the problem. Food allergies have been shown to make hay fever worse." The most common culprits are milk products, wheat, nuts and the preservatives in wine and beer. Sorry.

Although it's best to go for an individual, sit-down consultation at a clinic such as Farmacia – as everyone's symptoms vary (and asthma can be a not-to-be-taken-lightly complication of hay fever) – not everyone can afford to do this (costs are around £50).

Ribwort Plantain is a good anti-inflammatory and anti-allergen,especially if there's excess mucus. Nettle is an excellent antihistamine, although who would think it? Luffa Complex has been shown to reduce symptoms in 75 per cent of those who tried it, with 56 per cent being symptom free; this is what I've bought my beloved this year. Scullcap is also a good antihistamine. And thyme is "especially good if there is associated asthma," says Kenworthy. If anyone's interested I have an excellent garlic, thyme and goat's cheese pasta recipe, although all that dairy might not be good for you if you're drowning in mucus.

Although it seems like a paradox as hay fever is due to an overactive immune system, you may need to bolster up your immune system. Echinacea, yawn, is the current favourite but if you've been imbibing it like sherry over the few years that it's been "trendy" you might find its effects are diminished. Astragalus is the "new black" in immune boosting circles, and I'm a big convert. It helps you to fight viruses, gees up your white blood cells and has anti-stress properties. What a remedy.

Aside from fatty acids, other nutritional remedies to look at are quercitin, which is an anti-allergic, anti-inflammatory, naturally found in apples and rosehips – but who ever eats enough of those? And 1g of vitamin C is a useful addition to whatever you end up taking. In fact my partner finds that drinking a freshly made fruit smoothie gives him blessed relief of all symptoms for all of 10 minutes. But what a 10 minutes.

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