How to handle hay fever

Sneezing, runny nose, itchy throat, watery eyes – welcome to spring, and the arrival of peak hay fever season.

About one in five Australians suffers from hay fever.

While some people experience symptoms now and again; for others they are persistent and severe, and can disrupt sleep, concentration and daily life.

Common hay fever signs include:

  • Sneezing
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Itchy throat
  • Watery eyes

What causes hay fever?

Hay fever, medically known as allergic rhinitis, is caused by allergens.

Symptoms are triggered when pollen grains get trapped in the lining of the nose or eye and release their allergens, causing irritation and an increased production of mucus or tears.

“Pollen allergens are benign, but the body misrecognises them as being potentially harmful – like a bacteria or virus – and it tries to expel it from the body by producing mucus and the eyes tearing up,” says Associate Professor Ed Newbigin, co-ordinator of the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Pollen Count Team.

In springtime the allergens can be from the windborne pollen of plants like some types of grass.

Hay fever season in Australia

“Hay fever is seasonal allergic rhinitis – in south-eastern Australia you get it as we come in to spring and early summer, so it will start around October or November,” says Ed.

In Western Australia, hay fever caused by pollen can begin in late July or early August.

In the Northern Territory, grass pollens are at their most potent levels from April, while in Queensland the peak hay fever season is from December to April.

Watch Professor Connie Katelaris discuss managing hay fever and allergies on House of Wellness TV.

How to reduce or manage hay fever symptoms

“If you do manage hay fever you are less likely to see it develop into asthma and sinusitis, which can happen,” says Ed.

“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.”

Thankfully, the condition is easily controlled and there are lots of things you can do to manage it better.

  • 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. “Look at the forecast ahead so you can manage your exposure as much as possible on days when the count is high,” says Ed.
  • When pollen counts are higher, have your chosen treatment at hand. Talk to your pharmacist about over-the-counter therapies.
  • Effective over-the-counter treatments include eye drops to ease itchy, swollen eyes, decongestant or corticosteroid nasal sprays, and antihistamine medications for sneezing and itching.
  • A salt water nasal spray or douche can also help flush out pollens.

Check out pharmacist and master herbalist Gerald Quigley’s tips for keeping hay fever in check, as well as advice on how to take medicines safely.

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