Hay fever symptoms can be one of the most uncomfortable indicators that summer is well and truly on the way - but what causes the itchy, irritating signs of hay fever?
Runny nose? Check. Watery eyes? Check. Constant sneezing. Check check check.
According to Allergy UK, almost 18 million people in the UK have hay fever to some degree. Living with hay fever symptoms is no fun for anyone, but with the right identification and shop bought or natural hay fever remedies, they can be managed.
Here, we look at the potential causes and symptoms so you can enjoy the great outdoors sniffle free.
Hay fever causes
Hay fever, or seasonal allergic rhinitis as it’s referred to clinically, is usually affected by the pollen count, although it can also be induced by other allergens such as dust mites. Hay fever symptoms happen because your body mistakenly sees pollen as a threat, and so your immune system is attempting to prevent the perceived ‘infection’ from spreading. Pollen counts are generally higher in the early morning or late evening, and most sufferers start experiencing symptoms within 15 minutes of exposure.
How mild or severe your symptoms are can depend on the pollen count for that day (the Met Office Pollen Count Forecast tool can be a helpful tool to determine this), and the weather, as there’s more pollen in the air on hot, dry days than wet or cloudy ones.
Alcohol can also worsen symptoms of hay fever, as it contains histamine, the chemical that sets off allergic reactions within the body.
Grass pollen is the most common allergen, affecting an estimated 95% of hay fever sufferers. Grass pollen season begins in late May, and continues until early August.
While it’s less common, affecting around 25% of sufferers, tree pollen can also cause hay fever symptoms. Trees start to release their pollen from March-May.
Dock, mugwort, nettle, oilseed rape and plaintain are the main sources of weed pollen. They’re generally in the air from April to mid June.
Certain flowers, such as lillies, sunflowers and jasmine produce more pollen than others, and should be avoided if you have hay fever. Insect pollinated flowers, such as pansies, peonies, orchids, hydrangea and primrose, have thicker, stickier pollen that remains on the plant, and therefore cause less irritation.
Hay fever symptoms
The most common hay fever symptoms are:
- Frequent sneezing
- A blocked or runny nose
- Itchy, red or watery eyes
- An itchy throat, mouth, nose or ears
- Persistent coughing
Less commonly, you may also experience facial or sinus pain, headaches, earaches and tiredness. Some people with hay fever lose their sense of smell.
Max Wiseberg, airborne allergies expert and founder of HayMax adds, ‘Another set of symptoms worth mentioning are those caused by ‘oral allergy syndrome’ or ‘OAS’.
‘Some hay fever sufferers find that certain foods trigger unpleasant tingling, swelling or redness in their mouths and on their lips when they eat certain foods which contain similar proteins to those found in pollens.
‘For example, grass pollen shares a similar protein structure to that found in a selection of fruits and vegetables, including celery, cantaloupe, honeydew, oranges, peaches, tomatoes and watermelon – and thus can trigger a reaction in a hay fever sufferer who is sensitive to grass pollen.’
Hay fever and asthma
Hay fever often makes asthma symptoms worse, and according to research, can triple the likelihood of you developing asthma in the future. Speak to your doctor if you have asthma and hay fever, as you may experience wheezing and shortness of breath, and need to adjust your dose of medication.
Preventing hay fever symptoms
You can minimise your symptoms by:
- Keeping doors and windows closed
- Wearing wraparound sunglasses to stop pollen getting into your eyes
- Changing your clothes after spending time outside
- Drying your clothes indoors
- Dusting and hoovering your home regularly
- Exercise (indoors) and eat a healthy diet
- Avoiding smoking, either personally or around others
- Taking an over-the-counter medication
- Trying a natural hay fever remedy
Seeking medical advice for hay fever
The NHS advises that mild-to-moderate hay fever can be treated with over-the-counter remedies.
You usually only need to see your GP if:
- Your hay fever symptoms can’t be treated with over-the-counter medications, or you have troublesome side effects from the medication
- You’re experiencing persistent complications of hay fever, such as worsening of asthma or repeated episodes of sinusitis
- The pattern of your symptoms is unusual, for instance, occurring during the winter or only at your workplace. It may be that a substance other than pollen is responsible, and further testing will be needed to confirm this.