Hay fever - more to worry about than just a runny nose?

General Health

In the UK this summer, the Met Office has estimated that up to 20 million Brits could be more sensitised to hay fever symptoms due to the unusually high pollen count.

28/06/2019


Emily Condon
BSc (Hons) Biological Sciences

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Although waking up to the sunshine streaming through the curtains is a lovely feeling, for those who suffer from hay fever, this blissful feeling is bittersweet as they prepare for a day full of itchy eyes, sneezing constant and a runny nose. Hay fever has been reported to be on the rise in general in recent years, with an increase in air pollution and dryer temperatures resulting from climate change thought to be increasing the number of sufferers.

However hay fever can cause more problems than just the usual sneezing and itchy eyes. This week as a ‘pollen bomb’ hits the UK, around 3.3 million people with asthma could be affected be with breathing difficulties and even asthma attacks [1].

What is hay fever?

Hay fever or seasonal allergic rhinitis is an allergic reaction to the pollen produced from grasses, trees or weeds that is carried in the air during the spring and summer months. The body releases histamine into the bloodstream which causes a runny nose, sneezing and watering eyes. Out of the people in the UK who suffer, 95% of these are allergic to grass pollen. Some people are just allergic to one type of pollen while others can be allergic to all 3 different types of pollen. 

The NHS says hay fever is at its peak between late March and early September. The pollen season is divided into three main phases:

  • Tree pollen: late March to mid-May
  • Grass pollen: mid-May to July
  • Weed pollen: end of June to September.

Symptoms of hay fever:

  • A runny or blocked nose 

  • Itchy, watery eyes

  • Sneezing

  • Coughing

  • Headaches

  • Fatigue

  • Earache

Because of this year's long winter, the plants that couldn't flower earlier in the spring are more likely to do so all at once. The term is known as a "condensed spring" because it is far shorter than normal. This causes more pollen to be produced - causing hay fever symptoms for those affected. This mixed with a large amount of rainfall in the spring followed by weeks of good sunshine triggers a huge release of pollen from grass, plants and trees. In particular, it is the high levels of tree pollen this week could cause problems for asthma and hay fever sufferers in the UK. Trees in the UK have been releasing pollen since February, but the warm and sunny spring weather expected to be heading our way this week will cause a big spike in the levels. Asthma charities are advising people to keep their inhalers with them at all times and to take preventative medicine if needed.

What can be done to ease hay fever symptoms?

Unfortunately, there is no cure for hay fever but nasal sprays, eye drops and antihistamines can provide some relief. Seeing as pollen is the cause of hay fever, in an ideal world completely avoiding pollen is the best way to alleviate symptoms but this isn’t realistic. Keeping windows and doors closed, not keeping fresh flowers in the house, rubbing a small amount of vaseline in the nostrils and showering after going outside can all help to reduce the severity of hay fever symptoms.

If you suffer from hay fever, it is recommended that you avoid alcohol and smoking as alcohol contains histamine and smoking can irritate the lining of the nose, eyes, throat and airways.


References

1. Sufferers, P. and Andersson, J. (2019). ‘Pollen bomb’ warning for hayfever sufferers across the UK. [online] inews.co.uk. Available at: https://inews.co.uk/news/pollen-count-uk-today-hay-fever-levels-pollen-bomb-grass-forecast-symptoms/ [Accessed 18 Jun. 2019].

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