Did you know that hay fever can affect school grades?

Hay fever is a common allergy, an international study has found that it affects up to 40% of children1.

Another study has shown that school children who suffer from hay fever are more likely to experience a noticeable drop in exam performance2.

  • Compared to students without symptoms, schoolchildren who suffer from hay fever symptoms were 40% more likely to drop a grade between their practice and final GCSE exams2
  • This increased to a likelihood of 70% if they were taking sedating antihistamines at the same time as summer exams2

Hay fever is often most troublesome during the summer when pollen counts are high, which unfortunately falls in the middle of exam season for the majority of schools.

Luckily, there are lots of different ways to reduce the impact of hay fever, from quick tips such as monitoring pollen forecasts to finding the right treatment option.

Read on to find out how we can Teach Hay Fever a Lesson!

 
 
 

What is hay fever?

Hay fever (also known as Seasonal Allergic Rhinitis) is a common allergic condition affecting both adults and children that occurs at particular times of the year. It’s often associated with the summer months, due to increased levels of grass pollen from April to August.

What are the symptoms of hay fever?

Common symptoms of hay fever include:

  • Sneezing
  • Itchy eyes or throat
  • A blocked or runny nose
  • Watering or red eyes
  • Headaches and blocked sinuses
  • General feeling of being unwell
  • Tiredness
  • Post-nasal drip

Symptoms can become particularly difficult to manage when pollen counts are at their highest.

How do I know if my child has hay fever?

If you think your child may be suffering from hay fever, it’s worth speaking to your GP so they can provide an official diagnosis.

During the consultation, the GP or nurse will ask them about any previous symptoms they may have experienced and what time of year. This will help them to understand any potential triggers and diagnose hay fever more accurately. If necessary, they may also perform a skin prick or blood test to confirm which pollens are causing the hay fever.

Once they have the results from the allergy test, they’ll look at the clinical information to help make an accurate diagnosis. The GP will then be able to recommend the best treatment for your child to help them manage their hay fever.

Treatment and management of hay fever

Although avoidance of grass pollen is ultimately the best form of treatment, we know that’s rarely possible or practical, especially during those long summer days! To help reduce the impact of hay fever on your child’s learning and exam performance, we’ve put together some handy tips to Teach Hay Fever a Lesson:

  • It can be helpful to monitor pollen forecasts in your area so you can prepare for high pollen days. The Met Office has a useful pollen forecast to help you plan ahead
  • Sometimes, applying a thin layer of petroleum jelly around the edge of each nostril will trap or block pollens and will help prevent a reaction
  • Wraparound sunglasses when outdoors help keep pollen allergens out of their eyes
  • On high pollen days, encourage your child to shower and wash their hair to remove the trapped pollen after arriving home and change their clothing
  • Keep windows closed when indoors, particularly in the morning when pollen is being released, and in the evening when the air cools and airborne pollens falls to the ground
  • Avoid drying laundry outdoors when pollen counts are high

If these preventative and avoidance measures do not provide enough symptom relief, there are other treatment options available:

Antihistamines
Antihistamines block the release of histamine that cause the symptoms of hay fever. Anti-histamines are a common treatment for hay fever and are available in tablet or liquid form. Be sure that the antihistamine your child is taking is non-sedating as sedative antihistamines have been shown to significantly reduce exam performance in school-age children2.

Corticosteroids
Corticosteroids (commonly known as steroids) reduce inflammation. They can be prescribed for the treatment of hay fever and are available in tablets, injections and nasal sprays. If prescribed a nasal spray, make sure your child learns how to use it correctly to ensure it’s effective. If in doubt speak to your local pharmacist or nurse. Steroid tablets should only be taken for short periods of time to obtain fast symptom control for important occasions such as exams.

Nasal decongestants
Nasal decongestants are a type of medicine that provide short term medicine relief for a blocked or stuffy nose. They work by reducing the swelling of the blood vessels in your nose. These are available as drops or as a nasal spray and should only be used for a short period of time.

Always consult a doctor or pharmacist before using any medications.

Allergen immunotherapy for the treatment of severe hay fever

Immunotherapy in the UK is provided for people that have severe hay fever despite taking prescribed medications or steroid injections.

Immunotherapy works by exposing the immune system to small amounts of the substance the body thinks is harmful. Doing this on a regular basis stimulates the immune system to increase its familiarity and resistance against the allergen.

Immunotherapy is available as tablets or injections, the treatment course lasts for three years as it takes that period of time to retrain the immune system not to react to the allergen.

Unlike anti-histamines and nasal sprays, studies have shown the benefits of immunotherapy persist after finishing treatment.

In order to be considered for Immunotherapy, your GP will either need to refer you to an NHS allergy clinic or to a private hospital.

Click here to find your nearest allergy clinic.

Hay fever stories

Like any teenager, 16-year-old Yasmin Vijayan wants to look and feel her best. And like many young people, she is keen to be able to fulfil her potential at school and work towards her future. But the severe hay fever symptoms that Yasmin experiences each year means all of this is so much harder for her to achieve.

This summer, Yasmin sat her GCSE exams at school near where she lives in Langley, Berkshire, and now awaits her results in August along with the rest of the country’s current Year 11 pupils. For Yasmin, her important exams were made even more challenging due to the seriousness of her hay fever.

“It’s a horrible combination for a teenager: feeling awful physically from the hay fever symptoms, and at the same time feeling so self-conscious – with eyes red raw, itchy and swollen, and either a blocked or streaming nose. It’s exhausting for Yasmin and this can have a significant impact on performance at school and during exams,” explains Yasmin’s mum Laila.

For Yasmin taking her GCSEs, it was both the effect on herself as well as others that worries her. She says: “During my actual exams, my hay fever was really annoying with my eyes itching so much, and nose running. I couldn’t concentrate properly and at the same time, I was really concerned about disturbing other people too.”

Laila adds: “It’s hard for those with hay fever to take tissues in to their exams even. Although they can take tissues in with them, they are made to feel that they are being closely scrutinised [by the invigilators]; as a result, nobody really does take them in – to the detriment of hay fever sufferers as well as others. It means that they are either having to sniff constantly, or having to keep putting up their hand to ask the invigilators for tissues – I’m sure that’s disruptive for everyone.”

Yasmin’s hay fever began when she was at primary school. As a baby, she had experienced eczema and then asthma, but both improved as she got older. Then hay fever struck in 2009 when she was seven – which her mum recalls with absolute clarity: “Yasmin’s birthday is in June, and we can see from the pictures taken that year just how unwell she looked, especially around her eyes,” she says.

Yasmin has learned to cope with her hay fever with over the years, having tried a range of treatments and finding one that works best for her. This helps relieve some of her worst symptoms, but doesn’t help reduce them all. “Yasmin begins her medication as soon as her symptoms start – usually in March or April with itchy eyes – and continues through the summer. We’ve spent a fortune on nose drops and eye drops over the years.

“Yasmin is always really optimistic and excited about summer coming, but then her hay fever kicks in and she has to resign herself to it again. I’m really proud of her as she’s quite philosophical about it now, but it’s not easy for her.”

Having suffered for years, it was when Yasmin was sitting her mock GCSEs in 2017 that she and her mum realised the significance of her condition and the impact it could have on her academically. “When it’s really bad, I’m wiped out by feeling so unwell, and during my GCSEs this meant I then had less time to revise; that makes me worried,” says Yasmin.

Her mum agrees: “The hay fever makes Yasmin so tired, dealing with the symptoms and taking medication, while trying to study and then taking her exams – she really suffers and has had to take time off school when her hay fever is particularly bad. It’s inevitable that it will all affect her performance.”

14-year-old Bryn Gray from Lytchett Matravers near Poole in Dorset has suffered from severe hay fever for the past three years, having first experienced symptoms following exposure to grass pollen when he was 11.

Now at secondary school and currently a Year 10 student due to sit his GCSEs in 2018, Bryn’s hay fever starts as early as April each year. Building in severity, his condition manifests as debilitating symptoms that include intensely itchy, red and swollen eyes throughout the day, combined with a constant runny nose while also feeling ‘bunged up’, and finding it difficult to sleep.

Understandably, Bryn’s hay fever takes a considerable toll on him and his time at school. In this academic year, Bryn has had to take at least four days off school already due to his hay fever – feeling too unwell and exhausted from his condition.

Like some Year 10 pupils across the country, Bryn has been sitting mock GCSE exams during May and June – earlier than some at other schools, whose pupils will sit these exams in the Winter terms. For Bryn, this means managing his school work and revision for his important exams while contending with his serious hay fever symptoms. His mum Christine has spoken to his school, but both she and Bryn feel that his teachers don’t fully recognise or understand the severity of Bryn’s condition and the toll it takes on him.

Bryn himself says: “Most teachers just don’t understand it. They don’t realise how severe it is for me. I find it really hard to concentrate in my exams, and when revising.”

Christine adds: “School hasn’t really acknowledged it. There has been no offer of help for Bryn in general or advice on what he can do if he suffers particularly badly on an exam day for his mock GCSEs – or for the ‘real’ exams in a year’s time. I think we just have to hope that the pollen count will be less and his symptoms better next year.”

It’s not just Bryn’s academic school work that is affected by his hay fever – it’s his entire school and home life. Living in a rural area on the South Coast, his school is surrounded by outside green space and home is surrounded by farmland. As a result, it’s impossible for Bryn to avoid exposure during pollen season.

At school, he misses out on sport and PE lessons outside, usually having to retire inside to avoid being outdoors and exposed to pollen. He explains how he has had to adapt his break times during school as well as his extracurricular activities to ensure he is not at risk:

“At lunchtime at school my friends will often hang out with me close to the school buildings and away from the grassy areas. After school during the pollen season I have to take extra care to avoid being outside – I can’t be out with my friends after school, for example, as this can just make me feel worse.”

At home, Bryn’s mum Christine adds: “We even have to be careful in the back garden – if Bryn does sit out, he suffers so there is always a price to pay.”

Such is the extent of Bryn’s hay fever that he must even consider school trips with care to make certain he can participate and manage his symptoms. Bryn wasn’t able to take part with his school friends in a two-day Duke of Edinburgh Award expedition in May, for instance – he will now have to complete this section of the course in September with others in Hampshire. But he was a keen participant on a recent geography trip to Portsmouth as part of his GCSE studies. Had this been to a higher pollen risk area for Bryn, he may not have been able to attend.

Following advice from his GP and tips on the Allergy UK website (www.allergyuk.org), Bryn and his family take several steps to try to reduce his symptoms and minimise the impact of his condition. He always wears wraparound sunglasses outside; his school uniform is washed daily, all his clothes are tumble-dried, and his bedding is changed frequently. The house is also hoovered throughout regularly and he has air purifiers in his bedroom and to bring downstairs to help too.

Bryn also takes medication to help manage his hay fever: eye drops and nasal spray, as well as a non-drowsy prescription antihistamine in the morning so he feels less sleepy and better able to cope at school, along with another prescription medicine at night to help relieve his symptoms. From reading the Allergy UK website, his mum is also aware of immunotherapy being available for grass pollen allergy as a further treatment option and hopes to be able to discuss this further with their GP who has been very supportive and helpful.

Hay fever impacts a quarter of pupils in her current Year 9 class, according to Sarah Smith, science teacher at a secondary school in Fair Oak, Hampshire. Symptoms range in severity from mild, moderate to severe – and there is a definite effect on the performance of those students who suffer the most.

A teacher for four years, Sarah currently teaches across Years 8, 9 and 11. With a seven-year-old daughter herself suffering from the condition, she is only too aware that hay fever season coincides with her school’s annual end of year exams for pupils – as well as all-important GCSEs for her Year 11s.

Out of her class of 24 in Year 9, six students have hay fever, and four of these take daily medication. Sarah has observed that while these treatments may help alleviate the condition, they don’t remove or provide a cure for hay fever: “Their symptoms are eased but don’t disappear,” she says.

Sarah sees the impact of hay fever on her pupils every day during hay fever season, from the start of the school day to the end and is aware that her pupils still suffer at night. It is when the daily struggle coincides with school exams that Sarah feels especially concerned – knowing that the symptoms disturb both the pupils themselves suffering from hay fever as well as their fellow students: “Their noses can be running constantly, and they need boxes of tissues on hand to help, which is distracting for them and for others around them.”

Sarah cites one current Year 9 pupil, whom she feels suffers the most from hay fever and the impact on him during his recent end-of-year exams: “He told me he felt he could have done so much better if he could sit his exams at other times of the year. He knows his ability has been affected by his condition, and that he definitely could have performed better in his exams – this is solely down to his condition.”

From her experience with pupils affected by hay fever, Sarah is keen to see more awareness of the condition in schools and the impact it can have on exam outcomes for students. “As a school, we would be interested to learn more about what we can do to help our pupils who are struggling with a pen in one hand and tissues in the other.”

She adds: “Professional guidance and advice would be welcome, as well as knowing what measures might help that we can put in place as a school.”

Learn about hay fever

To view our infographic click below:

Hay fever - the facts