Written by Jackie Hall
A registered nurse and midwife with over 30 years experience within the health service, Jackie leads the Health at Hand team as clinical manager
What is hay fever?
Hay fever is an allergic reaction to pollen - the fine powder emitted by plants as part of their reproductive cycle. Pollen contains proteins that can cause the nose, eyes, throat and sinuses (that’s the small air-filled cavities behind your cheekbones and forehead) to become irritated and inflamed.
Who is most affected by hay fever?
Hay fever can affect all ages, although it usually begins in childhood and the teenage years. For 10 to 20% of sufferers, hay fever symptoms completely disappear with age.
As with many conditions, you are more likely to suffer from hay fever if you have a family history of allergies, especially eczema or asthma. In childhood, hay fever is more common in boys than girls, but with age it affects men and women equally.
When does hay fever start in the UK?
The majority of hay fever sufferers see their symptoms worsen at a particular time of year (often in spring and summer) which is known as ‘seasonal allergic rhinitis’. But severe sufferers may struggle year-round – a condition known as perennial rhinitis. When you suffer depends on the type of pollen you are allergic to:
- Tree pollen, released during spring (late March to mid-May)
- Grass pollen and flower pollen strike in late spring and the beginning of summer (mid-May to July)
- Weed pollen is at its most potent in the summer through to early autumn (late June to September)
What are the symptoms of hay fever?
Symptoms of hay fever include:
- A runny nose and nasal congestion
- Watery, itchy, red eyes (allergic conjunctivitis)
- An itchy nose, roof of mouth or throat
- Post-nasal drip (the sensation of mucus running down the back of the throat)
10 top tips to treat hay fever
While there is unfortunately no cure for hay fever, there are many products and treatments available that can relieve symptoms.
The most effective way to control hay fever is to avoid exposure to pollen. This may be easier said than done, especially when the hot summer weather sets in. So, here are other ways to alleviate hay fever symptoms, without compromising on fun in the sun:
- Keep clean – Take a shower and change your clothes after being outdoors to remove the pollen on your body and hair
- Choose the right sunglasses – Wear wrap-around sunglasses to stop pollen getting into your eyes when you're outdoors
- Check the weather forecast – Many weather forecasts include pollen counts in their bulletins, especially if they are due to be high (over 50 grains per cubic metre of air). If levels are set to soar, assess how much time you need to be outdoors and whether your symptoms will stop you having fun. If you stay indoors, keep your windows and doors shut
- Avoid being around pets that have been outdoors – Pets carry pollen on their fur, so it’s advisable to keep a distance on days with a high pollen count. Take advantage of a hot day by washing them, to keep them cool and reduce the chance of a flare-up
- Protect your nostrils – Apply a small amount of Vaseline (petroleum gel), or similar, to the nasal openings to trap pollen grains
- Dry your clothes indoors – Pollen will collect on your clothes, so avoid drying your washing on the line when the pollen count is high
- Avoid gardening and choose the right plants – Spending time in the garden, close to plants, will exaggerate hay fever symptoms. So, to be able to enjoy your garden over the summer avoid planting wind-pollinated plants such as sunflowers, ragweed and dahlias
- Spend time by the sea – Sea air blows pollen in-land, so what better excuse do you need for a beach break?
- Take antihistamines – This treatment helps to prevent an allergic reaction from occurring, while steroid nasal sprays are commonly used to reduce inflammation and swelling
- Visit your GP – If symptoms persist, visit your GP to discuss further options that may be available. In extreme cases, immunotherapy may be an option – this involves being exposed to small amounts of pollen over three years to build resistance to its allergic effects
In most cases, hay fever can be controlled by making behavioural changes and taking over-the-counter medication from your pharmacist. But it may be worth speaking to your GP if:
- Allergy medications don't provide relief or cause unpleasant side effects
- You have another condition that can worsen hay fever symptoms, such as nasal polyps, asthma or frequent sinus infections
For more information on hay fever, visit the AXA Health allergies hub.