The weather is warm, the sun is shining and the trees and flowers are in bloom. What’s not to like? For many people, the warmer weather brings more than sunshine and flowers – it’s hay fever season. Here’s a doctor’s guide to hay fever, including the common hay fever triggers and how you can help relieve symptoms at home.
What exactly is hay fever?
Hay fever is a type of allergic rhinitis – irritation and inflammation mainly in the nose and eyes as a response to something that triggers the immune system. In the case of hay fever, it’s an allergy to pollen in the air – tree pollen, grass pollen, and other plants can cause problems.
When we have an allergic reaction, our body naturally releases chemicals called histamines as part of a natural protective response. Sometimes when we’re exposed to an allergen, like pollen, our body’s response is excessive and makes us feel unwell. Some people are more susceptible to these kinds of allergic response than others – this seems to be down to a combination of lifestyle, genetic and environmental factors.
‘Mild allergies like hay fever are common, but it’s important to know when to seek urgent medical care – if you develop difficulty breathing, or have swelling around your lips and tongue, you need to get emergency help straight away,’ says Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP at Livi.
Streaming eyes, sneezes and runny noses for many people signals the arrival of hay fever season. Thankfully, we now know more than ever about the small lifestyle changes and simple treatments that help ease these unwelcome seasonal symptoms.
When is hay fever season?
Hay fever season is usually between around March and September, when plants release pollen as trillions of microscopic particles.
During this time, the pollen count is sometimes included in weather forecasts – it just means how much pollen is in the air that day. Hay fever usually gets worse as the pollen count gets higher, so hay fever sufferers might choose to avoid going outdoors at those times.
What types of pollen affect hay fever, and when?
Every plant releases a different type of pollen – it’s how they reproduce. Some types of pollen are more likely to cause reactions than others, and some people are more sensitive to one type than another.
Grass pollen This is the most common trigger for hay fever, and is usually particularly active from May to July in the UK.
Tree pollen This affects people a little earlier in the year, between February and mid-summer. There might even be differences in how each person reacts to different types of trees.
Weed pollen From June to September, hay fever is more likely to be a reaction to weed pollen – common weeds which cause hay fever include dock, nettles, mugwort and ragweed.
Crops Some crops also cause problems around this time of year, particularly oilseed rape just before and around the time of harvest.
Allergy screening tests your reaction to some different types of pollen separately, which can help plan the times of year to be extra careful about managing hay fever.
Common signs of hay fever
Hay fever can make you feel quite unwell, and can mimic the symptoms of other related allergies.
Some of the most common signs of hay fever include:
- Runny nose
- Swollen, red and sore eyes
- A sore throat
- Feeling very tired and generally unwell
- Poor sleep
Some people also find that they get headaches and earaches, and hay fever can even affect your sense of taste and smell.
‘Allergic rhinitis can make you feel really miserable, but most symptoms can be well-managed with over-the-counter medications,’ says Dr McClymont. ‘Oral antihistamines, steroid nasal sprays and antihistamine eye drops are all very useful to control the symptoms. For regular sufferers, it’s important to start using these treatments early in the hay fever season for the best result.’
How can I manage hay fever myself?
Sometimes, simple hay fever home remedies can be really useful for managing symptoms.
Use over-the-counter treatments– your local pharmacy is usually a good first port of call for hay fever relief. Plan ahead – take notice of which days are likely to be worse than others. Dry, windy days when the pollen count is high are particular culprits for causing hay fever, and you can take antihistamines in advance. Stay indoors – some hay fever sufferers might be able to stay indoors with the windows closed on particularly high pollen days, but not everyone’s lifestyle allows for that. Work, school, and life in general can make it tricky to avoid high pollen days. Wash clothes (and pets) – doing laundry and showering after you’ve been outside on high pollen days can help with signs of hay fever. Dry clothes indoors – hanging laundry on the line will increase the amount of pollen you’re exposed to.
Who is more at risk of hay fever?
People with asthma, who also get hay fever, might find that their asthma is worse when hay fever flares up – 80% of people find that hay fever can trigger asthma, and even sometimes cause serious attacks. Carefully managing both conditions is always essential, but especially so for people who find their asthma flares up badly in hay fever season.
‘Often, people who suffer with hayfever are also more likely to suffer with asthma or eczema - and vice versa. Sufferers may also have a genetic predisposition to hayfever, and so it tends to run in families. If a close family member suffers with it, your risk is higher,’ says Dr McClymont.
Is hay fever common in children?
Hay fever in children under the age of five is uncommon, but from that age and up, the numbers of children who develop hay fever surges, with around 40% of people affected at some point in their childhood.
Although it’s not usually thought of as a very serious condition, having bad hay fever can have a huge negative impact on a child’s quality of life, and lead to days off school and missed opportunities to go on trips and days out. The sleeplessness that sometimes accompanies hay fever can be difficult for children to deal with, but usually symptoms can be reasonably well controlled with careful medication management.
Many people find that their hay fever settles down as they get older – this may be due to changes in our immune response as we age. But somewhere between 10% and 30% of adults continue to suffer from hayfever.
How can I treat hay fever in children?
The types and doses of hay fever treatment suitable for children may be different than those for adults, so it’s important to choose the right product for the age group, and always follow the instructions on the box. A pharmacist or GP can give advice if you have any concerns or are having trouble managing hay fever in a child.
Should I see a doctor for hay fever treatment?
Hay fever can really impact the way you feel and how well you feel like you can cope with day-to-day life. On a bad day, hay fever can affect your mood, breathing, ability to work and even leave the house. Usually hay fever is manageable, and there are lots of options for treatment and management.
‘If you’re struggling to manage your symptoms with medications from the pharmacy then it is best to see your GP for further advice,’ advises Dr McClymont. ‘There are stronger medications for hay fever available on prescription, or in severe cases, a GP may refer you to an allergy specialist’.