Exam Fever - Don't be out for the count

hay fever

Nature and exam boards don’t play fair with hay fever sufferers. Armed with recent statistics nobody with any sense of fair play would schedule the most important exams of the year for May and June. It’s hay fever season – that time of year when a huge number of students face a debilitating condition that means they have every chance of underperforming – to the detriment of both themselves and their place of study.

The only thing we can say in sympathy is that if you get hay fever you are not alone – 15% of those who suffer claim it totally wipes them out completely. If you’re not prone to hay fever you probably don’t appreciate just how desperate it can make you feel. Writing as a sufferer who sends out a yearly email every April apologising in advance for my soon-to-be incredibly scratchy and unreasonable behaviour I have only sympathy.

In terms of exam performance the top line numbers, based on extensive research, and hard evidence from a range of robust scientific studies, are quite mind-boggling:

  • Up to 50% of students report hay fever symptoms during exams
  • A hay fever sufferer is 40% more likely to drop a grade from January to Summer
  • In general 16-24 year olds are the worst sufferers (the survey didn’t include under 16s)
  • Perhaps the scariest fact of all is that the UK is the hay fever centre of the world and experts predict that by 2030 as much as 45% of the UK population will be sufferers.

hay fever girl

The condition of a life-style

As with most things in life and health, hay fever is linked to lifestyle. According to the Kleenex 2010 Hay Fever Report those who have the condition but suffer least have:

  • Lower stress levels
  • A healthy diet
  • Get regular exercise
  • Enjoy more than 7 hours sleep a night

OK so that’s probably a million miles from your average student on an average exam day! The thing is, sorting out your lifestyle can mitigate the problems

Medication – get the retaliation in early

A range of hay fever medication is available from the chemist, or by prescription from the doctor. Those who use them every year often find one sort works better for them than others. It’s not uncommon to find one sort works for the first couple of weeks but then it’s worth changing to a different sort.

A big problem with sufferers is that they don’t start taking medication until the symptoms start to occur. Anti-histamines work best if the treatment starts in anticipation of the problem. This year spring has been late but it’s just around the corner – students with a track record of hay fever should start taking anti-histamines now.


Hay fever and exam performance

If you get hay fever on an exam day you’re going to be generally miserable and that’s bad enough – you never perform your best if you feel lousy. But with hay fever you get important side effects into the bargain:

  • Your runny nose means you will dehydrate much more quickly and dehydration of only 2% leads to a 30% reduction in performance
  • You will be taking anti-histamines that can also dehydrate you
  • If you take the wrong anti-histamines you may feel drowsy
  • Hay fever can seriously affect sleep patterns, which in turn affects concentration and exam performance

There are some perhaps unexpected facts too. Whilst it would seem reasonable to expect hay fever to be worse in the country, research shows it’s actually 15% worse in urban areas due to other environmental factors, such as air pollution, causing pollen to concentrate more. Even if you’re sitting exams in a tarmac jungle you are not immune.

If you suffer how can you best manage your problems?

Hay fever (for clinic details click here) is only really the body’s immune response to a range of stimuli that provoke a symptomatic response from the immune system. If you can steer clear of the stimulus you don’t get the symptom. So the first and simplest remedy is to try to hide from the cause – pollen. 

Pollen is incredibly light and during the day quickly rises up into warm air, then falls back to earth in the evening. Avoiding being outside at those times of day is a great start – although not very practical if you have an early morning exam. Keep the bedroom windows shut. Keep the doors shut if possible.

The other thing is that nature designed pollen to stick to absolutely anything. In particular it will stick to hair, which tends to be really close to your face and nose. Wearing a hat (and your hair up if long) at high pollen times is a real help. Wrap-around sunnies are good. Showering every night is brilliant as you wash off the pollen you have accumulated during the day and get a better night’s sleep. Don’t forget that pollen loves pets – a harmless huggle with the family pooch can turn into a sneezing nightmare.

Pollen also sticks to clothes. Whilst it sounds ridiculous getting the vacuum cleaner out and running it over a blazer or top you tend to wear every day will seriously cut down the personal pollen count. Changing pillowcases and bedding regularly really helps. Wearing fresh clothes the next morning gives you a clean start.


What’s the single most important thing on exam day?

Don’t forget to take water into your exam with you and keep well hydrated.

Useful link

The Hay Fever Health Report 2010 https://www.kleenex.co.uk

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