Harmony in the garden
By Dr Trisha Mcnair.
There’s something very special about the British summer and outdoor events (call me an optimist – although of course I always carry a big umbrella!). Green meadows, cottage gardens, and picnics filled with strawberries and chilled wine make a special combination. And above it all the gentle trill of voices completes the vibe. An increasing swell of people are joining choirs and bands and singing at summer festivals and fetes, but for those with hayfever the deluge of pollen out in the shire gardens brings an extra challenge. Itchy swollen airways, runny noses and watery eyes can play havoc with pitching perfect harmonies or simply reading the music sheets.
So what can singers do if they struggle with hay fever? Before you think about medication there are lots of simple strategies to try.
First of all, drink plenty of water to keep well hydrated. Summer weather may leave you more vulnerable to drier mucous membranes in the mouth, nose and throat. Hayfever can aggravate this and some of the medicines used for hayfever, such as anti-histamine drugs or decongestants compound the dryness. So stay ahead of the problem. Once you start to feel thirsty you are already significantly dehydrated, so keep a water bottle on you and sip regularly. Herbal teas are another way to keep hydrated, and some herbs are particularly soothing to the throat such as liquorice, ginger or sage.
Some people find that dairy foods and chocolate can increase their production of nasal secretions and aggravate the effect of hayfever by clogging up the air passages and distorting breathing and sound. Although this is not proven by scientific research, avoiding these foods for a couple of days before a singing event is no real hardship and may be worth a try if you suffer from hayfever.
Others claim that honey, a traditional remedy for soothing sore throats since ancient times, really helps to keep the throat moist and their delivery strong. It’s also been suggested that eating locally produced honey, which contains a small amount of pollen, will help to desensitise your immune system to the pollen you will come across in the local environment. Again there is no science to support this, but what’s not to like in a little honey ? And while you’re busy with the bees, smearing some beeswax based allergen barrier balm around your nose can help to trap pollen and reduce the amount that reaches deeper into the airways.
Wearing sunglasses is another simple strategy that can reduce the amount of pollen blowing into your eyes (great for rock n’roll although shades may raise the eyebrows of a choirmaster).
Inevitably some people with hayfever will only be able to get out to sing if they use medication. Timing may be crucial – try to think about how the effects of your drugs may match your performance. Medication consists of antihistamines, which prevent the allergic reaction to pollen from developing, and steroids which have an anti-inflammatory effect. Antihistamines are usually effective at treating itching, sneezing and watery eyes, but they may not help with clearing a blocked nose. One advantage is that they can be used as a preventative before you even drift into pollen, as well as “as-required” when you start to notice symptoms. So on the day of an important performance make sure you take some before you leave your house, and carry a supply with you. If antihistamine tablets make you feel drowsy, try to time them so that this effect is wearing off by the time you sing, or use one of the more modern antihistamines where this is less of a problem.
Steroids are more effective than antihistamines at preventing and relieving nasal symptoms, including sneezing and congestion. They can also relieve itchy, watery eyes. If your hayfever is severe you may be prescribed steroid tablets but these are most effective if started a couple of weeks before symptoms usually begin. However a nasal steroid spray may be most effective if used half an hour before you start singing. Decongestant sprays should also be used a little while before singing and for no more than 7 days as they can leave the nasal passages dry and irritated. So look carefully at your diary and plan for maximum effect. If you plan to sing right through the summer you may need to explore a longer term treatment called immunotherapy which desensitizes you to pollen but this should only be given in a specialist centre.
Finally, just before the gig, make sure to warm up your voice properly – airways inflamed by the reaction to pollen can be more easily strained. Work hard on your breathing, remembering to support your voice as well as you can using your abdominal muscles to avoid additional strain on a dry throat. If you repeatedly feel strain in your throat check your technique with a singing teacher.
By Dr Trisha Mcnair