I get really bad hay fever.
Anyone who’s seen me out and about during Spring will know this. I’m sneezing, blowing my nose, my face is puffy, and I look like I’m crying 24-7. It’s quite awful.
For the last few years, to make my life a bit easier, I’ve worn a mask. 😷 This blocks the pollen grains from getting into my upper respiratory tract, so I don’t sneeze as much and my eyes don’t feel like a cat sat on them. 🐈
On really bad days, I get asthma. It can feel like a baby sitting on my chest, to a small child sitting on my chest. Breathing feels laborious, and the following day I can feel this build up of gunk in my lungs. It’s proper disgusting.
Anyway, after 10 years of just brushing it all off as a ‘she’ll be right-is’, I finally got sick of feeling like shite each year. So, from early this year, I started desensitisation shots, just to try and lessen the severity of my pollen allergies.
Desensitisation/immunotherapy is interesting. This is how it went down for me.
First I needed to book an appointment with a GP to regale them with tales of how horrible I feel every spring. They asked me why on earth I’d put up with the symptoms for so long, and I simply replied, ‘Ph. D’, and they just chuckled and moved to the next question. They then asked for a non-fasting blood test to check if my IgE (Immunoglobulin E) levels were higher than normal, suggesting that I had hypersensitivity. To my amusement, mine was through the roof when it came to IgE antibodies that reacted to rye grass pollen- I was hella sensitive.
I guess it was just nice to have some numbers to go along with my anecdotal evidence that my allergies were quite bad. Sometimes you don’t realise that it’s actually a serious health issue, until a doctor points it out to you. 😅
Anyway, I then got a referral to see an allergy specialist. I contacted the specialist in early December last year, and the earliest I could see someone was March this year. Not the worst thing in the world, though, because I could still make the cut to start my immunotherapy shots for this year.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I saw the specialist, but basically I reiterated my symptoms and what I wanted to get out of the referral (to lessen the severity of my symptoms). I had my lung function tested (that was surprisingly competitive and fun), then had the skin prick test.
That was not fun.
I have photos of it on my phone, but basically you get a grid drawn on the inside of your forearms (the squishy bit), and different allergen solutions are placed, as droplets, in the centre of each square. Then you get lanced repeatedly so that the allergen has a chance to get under your skin. Cue multiple jabs with a pointy needle. I hate needles.
And then you just sit and wait for the swelling. You get these big, ballooning hives pop up if you’re allergic to a particular thing, and after a certain time they’ll measure the wheal and give you a score for each allergen. The larger the swelling, the higher the score. They’ll also give you an ice pack to take home, so that you can alleviate the severe itching sensation and heat from the inflammation.
For me, I was highly allergic to grass pollen of all kinds. Funnily enough, the grass I was most allergic to had the same name as my partner. That had the nurse and me in stitches.
I was also allergic to some types of trees, cats, and horses, but not against dust mites or moulds. Nice to know a little bit more about yourself, right?
After that, the specialist made recommendations for what allergen combo to get immunotherapy for, and what mode of delivery the doses would be in.
For grass pollen (I went for a grass pollen mix/cocktail), you can either have shots (subcutaneous, so just under the skin- less painful than an intramuscular shot like a flu shot), or you can have a tablet that you swallow. The tablet seemed more complicated to me, as it required the user take one every day. I’m not particularly good with daily routines (sssh, don’t tell anyone), so I opted for the shots, which were less frequent. The kit cost about $250 for the year, and you basically place an order online and it gets delivered to the specialist clinic.
The first dose starts around April. If it’s your first dose, you have to have it at the specialist’s, so that they can observe you (and make sure you don’t have any adverse side effects). It’s one of the reasons they check your lung function at the start, because if you’re asthma prone outside of pollen season, these shots might trigger an attack.
Thankfully I only get asthma during hay fever season, so I was fine to get my shot. I didn’t really notice much of a difference, thankfully. My Ph. D supervisor told me that their arm blew up like a balloon when they got theirs, so I was afraid mine would turn into my twin or something.
The first dose is very small, with the smallest amount of allergen (which in my case is grass pollens) present). Then for the next month or so, you get a weekly dose- slowly building up the amount of allergen you’re given.
After that it’s a monthly shot, all the way until the beginning of the pollen season, when you’ll stop the shots. You don’t want to combine allergen shots with pollen season, because that could be dangerous.
Some shots, I noticed a swelling at the site of injection, and I noticed my arm got very itchy. I knew it was bad when I caught myself scratching it in my sleep. Over time, though, the swelling would disappear, and with each shot, the swelling lessened- which potentially means my body is learning not to freak out over it.
Right now I’m waiting for next year’s appointment, so that I can repeat this whole thing again. Usually these things take a few years before there’s a reduction in symptoms (if any), so I haven’t really noticed that much of a difference this year. It definitely helps that mask wearing is now mandatory in Victoria. No one bats an eyelid when I’m wearing one now. I have had a passer-by make a negative remark about my ‘weird mask’ last year, so I’m glad I don’t have to nervously walk around people now.
Anyway, the reason why I wrote this was because today has been forecast to be a really bad thunderstorm asthma day in Victoria. Pollen counts have been very high these past couple days (in the ‘extreme’ range), and today it’s thunderstorms and rains galore.
I still remember that awful day when so many in the state got hospitalised, or passed away. So, I’ve taken my prescribed preventative inhaler, I’ve taken my anti-histamine, and I’ve got my inhaler (with spacer) out, ready for action.
For people who also suffer from hay fever and asthma as I do, I feel for you right now. My chest feels tight, so I’m doing very little today, with minimal time outdoors.
If you’ve put up with hay fever symptoms for years and years, as I have, and feel like it’s time to do something about it, I highly recommend seeing your GP to get the process started. The wait times are ridiculous, but hopefully it’ll help in the long run.
Take care, and stay safe.
A former wet-lab based Bacteriology Ph. D student residing in Australia. Now working part time at a secret location as a Communications and Data Officer. 👀 🦠 🧫 🧬