Avoiding the allergy nightmare

  • Occasionally, dusty hay, horse feed, pollen and horsehair make you sneeze. But for some, these allergens cause far more severe reactions. A runny nose, itchy eyes and throat, headaches, hives on the skin, wheezing or coughing are just some of the symptoms sufferers put up with all year round.

    An allergy is the body’s way of responding when it comes into contact with a substance it thinks is harmful. Allergies to animals are usually sparked by proteins from hair, skin cells or saliva that cause a reaction and prompt the body to produce histamine.

    It’s the histamine that irritates the upper airways and causes symptoms ranging from relatively minor itchy eyes, dark circles under the eyes and a runny nose to the more severe asthmatic cough and wheezing or eczema.

    An allergy is rarely treated unless you have a severe reaction caused by one specific allergen, in which case you can undergo a desensitisation programme.

    And if you are allergic to horses, apart from avoiding them altogether, the answer is generally to find a medicine — usually an antihistamine — that suits you and controls the symptoms. An antihistamine tablet or capsule is usually the most effective treatment. This works by blocking the action of histamine, the chemical the body releases when it thinks it’s under attack. An antihistamine will also ease the hay fever-type symptoms, while itchy skin can usually be relieved by a cream containing zinc and antihistamine.

    A decongestant is the best bet for a stuffy nose, which is common with pet allergies and hay fever. These come as liquids, nasal sprays, tablets or capsules. Nasal sprays will help reduce any inflammation and swelling in your nostrils, while a regular application of eye drops will relieve sore, itchy eyes. Failing that, your GP should be able to prescribe something stronger.

    By taking simple precautions, you can also limit the level of exposure to horsehair or stable dust. For example, because the allergen is carried on your clothes, change out of your gear as soon as you get home, don’t keep clothes in your bedroom and wash them as often as possible.

    Also, avoid grooming your horse in the stable, and consider wearing a cheap dust mask, which you can buy from any DIY store, particularly when your horse is losing its coat.

    It also pays to be aware of the symptoms of a severe allergy to horses, feed or hay, particularly in young children.

    “My five-year-old nephew, Alex, visited us last summer with his parents and we took him to see my horse,” says Mary Walsh from Surrey. “He climbed on to Jasper’s back and seemed happy enough — I had visions of teaching him to ride. But within minutes Alex was having trouble breathing. He went bright red in the face and was gasping for breath. He got so bad so quickly that his parents rushed him to a nearby fire station, where we knew there was usually a paramedic ambulance. It was really scary and I couldn’t believe it happened so quickly.”

    Unfortunately for Alex, he will react if he comes into contact with someone who has touched a horse, and it is vital that he takes an antihistamine tablet before meeting someone who has been riding.

    But if you are allergic and are determined to carry on riding, as a last resort you could always get in touch with the Kentucky-based breeders of Curly Foxtrotters. This is a breed of horse with a wavy or curly coat that is said to be totally hypoallergenic.

  • This feature was first published in Horse & Hound (7 July, ’05)

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