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September 2021

Spring air: managing allergies in the workplace

Written by Nathalie Leblond
Workplace Hygiene, Air Quality

Staff suffering from seasonal allergies at in the workplace are a cause of increased absenteeism and presenteeism which impacts the bottom line. This post offers solutions to managing allergies in the workplace this spring. 

If, like me, you are a sufferer of seasonal allergies, you'll forgive the mangling of the well-known and much-cited springtime poem below.

Spring is sprung, the grass is riz
I wonder where the antihistamines is...

Spring time allergies and how to avoid them this Spring

Spring is a time of renewal, and coincidentally, absenteeism in the workplace. Plenty of people suffer from seasonal allergies, and while seasonal allergy symptoms are not life-threatening, they are a valid reason for taking a sick day if you’re a chronic sufferer. 

Not to mention that besides making you feel miserable, seasonal allergies can also affect your performance at work and generally interfere with your life. But considering that allergic rhinitis (hay fever) affects as many as 3 out of every 10 people, allergy-related absenteeism or presenteeism can make quite an impact to the bottom line. 

Add into the mix the fact that indoor air is often more polluted than outdoor air (you can find out more about that in our blog post on indoor air quality) and you have a powerful combination for employees who are already suffering from seasonal allergies to have their symptoms further aggravated at work - and leading to increased absenteeism.  

But let's take a step back for some understanding on allergies - and seasonal allergies specifically.  

Understanding allergies

Allergic to everything: How to enjoy Spring with allergies

An allergy occurs when your immune system reacts to something that’s usually harmless to other people. If you come into contact with a substance that your immune system views as a threat (an allergen), it responds by releasing a chemical called histamine. The release of histamine is what causes your allergic reaction, and why allergies are frequently treated with antihistamine medication

"Atopy", or having an atopic predisposition, refers to the genetic predisposition to develop allergic diseases. Anything from pollen to mould, animals to food can trigger an allergic reaction in someone who has an atopic predisposition. And while some people may outgrow their existing allergies, new ones could spring up at any time.

Seasonal allergies 

Seasonal allergies and what to do with them when air quality is poor

A seasonal allergy is a result of coming into contact with an allergen that’s only around during a specific time of the year. A common example is pollen. And with climate change, the general trend has been that we’re getting higher levels of pollen and longer pollen seasons.

A study published in February in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) backs this up: reporting a lengthening of the pollen season by 20 days and a 21% increase in pollen concentrations between 1990 and 2018.

Seasonal allergies are sometimes called seasonal allergic rhinitis or - more commonly - hay fever.  Hay fever is the most common of the allergies and the nose, eyes, sinuses, and throat are usually involved. The most common symptoms of hay fever are a runny nose and a postnasal drip (causing you to clear your throat often), a stuffy or blocked nose, lots of sneezing and itchy nose, eyes, ears and throat.

For hay fever sufferers, these symptoms are no small matter. "If you don't have allergies, you don't realize it -- but hay fever is more than just a stuffy nose," says Karin Pacheco, MD, an allergist in Denver. "There are whole-body effects that make it hard to function. What slows people down is the fuzzy feeling in your head ... which makes you feel disoriented, disconnected, makes it hard to focus" Pacheco says. Symptoms and effects which don't make for very productive employees.

How do I know it's not a cold - or worse - Coronavirus?

coronavirus vs common cold virus

The common cold - and the Delta variant of the Coronavirus  - both have similar symptoms to seasonal allergies. However, cold symptoms are caused by a virus, while allergy symptoms are caused by the immune system responding to an allergen. 

The CDC has a handy Venn diagram that shows the symptoms the two conditions have in common. These include congestion, cough, difficulty breathing, fatigue, runny nose, sore throat, and shortness of breath. But comparing the most common symptoms reveals clear differences. Seasonal allergies usually cause itchy or watery eyes and sneezing, while COVID-19 is characterized by fever and chills, muscle and body aches, new loss of taste and smell, nausea and vomiting, and diarrhoea.

Pollen counts are increasing

As we mentioned above, pollen counts are increasing every year, making hay fever a problem that's getting worse.  "With global warming, ragweed and other allergenic plants are producing more pollen -- especially in urban areas," says Dr Pacheko.  Also, there is some evidence that air pollution could cause more people to develop hay fever and other allergies. 

Preventing outdoor irritants from coming indoors: 

According to the CDC, creating cleaner air at work that can be helpful in protecting against outdoor air irritants such as pollen. They suggest installing portable air purifiers which work best when run continuously with the doors and windows closed. They also suggest keeping windows closed and using high-efficiency particulate air filters (HEPA filters). 

So what does this mean for the workplace?

Preventing outdoor irritants from entering your workplace is a good start, but what about evaluating the quality of the air inside your workplace?  It may come as some surprise that studies conducted by the Environmental Protection Association (EPA) show that indoor environments can have higher pollution levels than pollution levels outside. Indoor air quality can be 2-5 times more polluted than outdoor air

indoor air pollution can be worse than outdoor air pollution

Poor indoor air quality has been linked to a reduction in a person’s ability to perform specific mental tasks requiring concentration, calculation, and memory: reducing office performance by between 6–9% . And that's in healthy employees. 

Recycled air and common indoor air pollutants found in offices can reduce a healthy employee’s ability to respond to the day-to-day demands of their work, leading to fatigue, headaches, and diminished mental and physical performance.  Carbon monoxide concentrations in the workplace can cause fatigue, reduced brain function, and impaired vision and coordination. Emissions from aged materials and furniture typically account for up to 30% of total VOCs, which can exacerbate allergies and respiratory issues.

Now imagine that you have an employee who is already suffering from seasonal allergies and their associated symptoms. We know that presenteeism — the phenomenon of employees coming in to work despite being ill — can be due to chronic conditions such as allergies,  so add the "fuzzy feeling in your head ... which makes you feel disoriented, disconnected, makes it hard to focus"  to the effects listed above of poor indoor air quality and you have a recipe for extremely unproductive, unwell employees.  

Initial has the solution for ensuring clean air: 

VIRUSKILLER™ can help to improve employee performance and productivity by delivering air that is free from the pollutants that can cause eye irritation, blocked nose, tight chest, and dizziness.

The high-grade HEPA filter and activated carbon filter take care of the particulates and harmful gases and fumes responsible for poor concentration, fatigue, and headaches, while the decontamination power of the Reactor Chamber neutralizes gases and deactivates biological pathogens that carry illness and exacerbate allergies and asthma.

Find out more about the technology behind the design of VIRUSKILLER™.

As awareness grows around the dangers of indoor air pollution, the day will come when the quality of indoor air in workplaces will be officially regulated. In the meantime, businesses worried about absenteeism, presenteeism and the general wellbeing of their employees have an opportunity to get a competitive advantage when they invest in indoor air safety.

Want to find out more about this technology and the role of air purification in breaking the chain of infection? Watch our webinar on 'Tackling Coronavirus in the Air'. 

Watch the Webinar

You may also be interested in downloading the VIRUSKILLER™ brochure to learn more about the range. Or you can contact our team to find out more.

VIRUSKILLER Air Purification Brochure

Nathalie Leblond

Nathalie Leblond

I joined Rentokil Initial South Africa in 2004 as the PA to the MD, and after 6 months maternity leave I re-joined the Company in 2009 as the Marketing Co-ordinator for Rentokil. I'm now the Marketing Communication Manager for Rentokil Initial. I'm still terrified of cockroaches (Americana's only!) but the rest of the creepy crawlies we deal with don't really bug me (see what I did there?), so I guess I'm in the right industry! I am passionate about what we do here at Rentokil Initial and also write for our Hygiene Blog, which can be found at blog.initial.co.za, and our Ambius blog - https://www.ambius.co.za/blog. Life outside of Rentokil Initial mostly revolves around my daughter, who has just turned twelve, and my husband (who is a bit older). I love living in Cape Town and wouldn't trade living here for anywhere else in the world.

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