How to handle hay fever
Sneezing, runny nose, itchy throat, watery eyes – welcome to spring, and the arrival of peak hay fever season.
For the one in five Australians who suffer from hay fever, spring can be a difficult time.
With El Niño predicted to increase temperatures this spring and summer, here are some tips to handle the early pollen season.
What is hay fever?
Despite its name, hay fever isn’t caused by hay and is not accompanied by fever.
In spring, this can also include windborne pollen from certain trees, grasses or weeds.
Australian medical personality Dr Zac Turner says London plane trees (popular in Sydney and Melbourne), shedding leaf shoots and “trichomes” (hairs) may also cause higher levels of hay fever.
“There’s also the fact that so many Aussies have had a tree change, meaning they’re being exposed to different triggers at the places they’re now living,” Dr Turner says.
Hay fever occurs when your immune system produces antibodies against these allergens that comes in contact with your nose or eyes.
“The body misrecognises them as being potentially harmful, like a bacteria or virus,” University of Melbourne pollen count team associate co-ordinator Professor Ed Newbigin explains.
“And it tries to expel it from the body by producing mucus and the eyes tearing up.”
What are the signs and symptoms of hay fever?
While some people experience occasional symptoms, for others they are persistent, severe and can disrupt sleep, concentration and daily life.
Common hay fever signs include:
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Itchy throat
- Watery eye
- Congested nose
Complications may include:
- Sleep disturbance
- Daytime tiredness
- Poor concentration
- Recurrent ear infections in children
- Recurrent sinus infections in adults
- Asthma, which is more difficult to control
When is hay fever season in Australia?
“The main hay fever season across southern Australia associated with grass pollen usually begins around October or November,” Prof Newbigin says.
“Elsewhere it varies, both in its timing and in the range of pollen types that are acting as triggers.”
In Western Australia, hay fever caused by pollen can begin in late July or early August.
Grass pollens are at their most potent levels from April in the Northern Territory, while peak hay fever season is from December to April in Queensland.
How serious is hay fever?
Hay fever symptoms typically occur during the pollen season and generally do not last for the whole year.
Unlike immune reactions caused by a virus or bacteria, the condition is not contagious.
Murdoch Children’s Research Institute allergy immunology research group head Professor Mimi Tang says hay fever is often trivialised, but it can seriously affect a person’s quality of life.
“Studies show adults have poor sleep quality, subsequent tiredness, poor concentration, and even poor work performance, all as a result of hay fever,” Prof Tang says.
Poorly controlled hay fever is also an important factor in thunderstorm asthma, she warns.
Can hay fever affect asthma?
Yes, hayfever can worsen asthma, and most people with asthma have hayfever too, says Asthma Australia.
Hay fever affects 80 per cent of people with asthma.
“Asthma and hay fever both involve inflammation and sensitivity in your airways – in your nose and lungs,” Asthma Australia chief executive Michele Goldman says.
“Uncontrolled hay fever symptoms can worsen asthma symptoms.
“If left unchecked, this can seriously impact your quality of life and put your health in danger, which is why it’s important to treat the allergies in your nose as well as asthma in the lungs.”
Prof Newbigin says if you do manage hay fever, you are less likely to see it develop into asthma and sinusitis.
“People think, ‘It’s just hay fever, toughen up’, but it can get worse, which is why it’s important to manage it as best as possible,” Prof Newbigin says.
Can you prevent kids from developing hay fever?
Hay fever reportedly affects up to 30 per cent of kids.
New research presented by Deakin University research fellow Dr Yuan Gao found reducing the risk of developing allergy-related symptoms in young children may be linked to their gut health.
The study analysed the faecal samples of babies in the Barwon Infant Study from one month, six months and one year after birth, to evaluate the presence of bacteria.
Further skin-prick tests for allergic reactions were conducted, and parents were also asked to keep track of whether their children had developed an allergy-related wheeze or asthma throughout the investigation.
“We found that if babies had more mature gut microbiota when they were one year old, they were less likely to have an allergy-related wheeze at one and four years old,” Dr Gao says.
“Given the complex origins and development of both gut microbiota and the infant immune system, it is likely that the protective effect of a healthy gut microbiota occurs as a result of communities of bacteria acting in multiple different ways, rather than via one particular mechanism.”
Hay fever treatment options
There are many treatment options available so talk with your doctor or pharmacist.
You may need to refer to a clinical immunology or allergy specialist for testing.
Prof Tang says while there is no cure for hay fever yet, there are plenty of options to control the symptoms.
“These are really good at controlling symptoms like sneezing, itching, runny nose, but they’re not very good at controlling more persistent forms of inflammation,” Prof Tang says.
Topical corticosteroid nasal spray
Prof Tang says if you have symptoms more than four days a week, for more than four weeks a year, you may need a topical corticosteroid nasal spray.
“If you have had inflammation present for a while, you’ll start having congestion or blockage, so anyone who has that symptom should really go straight onto a topical corticosteroid nasal spray,” she says.
Also known as desensitisation, this long-term strategy can reduce the severity of symptoms and the need for regular medications.
Prof Tang says it involves the administration of regular, gradually increasing amounts of environmental allergen extracts, by injections or by sublingual tablets, sprays or drops (under the tongue).
How to prevent and manage hay fever
Thankfully, there are lots of things you can do to help manage hay fever, or try to prevent it affecting you:
- On windy days in spring, stay indoors as much as possible and avoid going out during or just after thunderstorms.
- Rinse your eyes regularly with cold water to flush away pollen.
- Monitor the daily pollen count and forecast, so you know if it’s a high pollen day. When pollen counts are higher, have your chosen treatment at hand. Talk to your pharmacist about over-the-counter therapies.
- A salt water nasal spray or douche can also help flush out pollen.
- Put Vaseline around your nostrils to trap pollen.
- Wear wrap-around sunnies to protect your eyes.
- Shower and change your clothes after you’ve been outside.
- Keepwindows and doors closed as much as possible.
How long does hay fever last?
Hay fever symptoms last as long as there is continuous exposure to allergens, both seasonal and all year round.
Unlike a cold, these can present for several weeks or months if left untreated.
While certain allergy medications may help alleviate symptoms within a few days, they should be consistently taken until exposure to allergens has subsided.
See a doctor or a specialist if symptoms are severe, last longer than a week or are not responding to over-the-counter medications.
Can dogs and cats get hay fever?
Both dogs and cats can experience hayfever just like humans, although for most, their allergies show up as skin conditions rather than itching eyes and stuffed sinuses, Dr Turner says.
For more expert advice on managing hay fever:
- How to follow a low-histamine diet
- The easy diet fix to help bust asthma and hay fever symptoms
- 5 supplements to help treat hay fever naturally
- How to spring clean your gut this allergy season
Originally published 2018. Updated by Melissa Hong September 2023.