What is hay fever?
Also known as seasonal allergic rhinitis, hay fever is when you have an allergy to pollen, which is produced by trees, plants and flowers.
According to Allergy UK, hay fever affects between 10-30% of all adults and as many as 40% of children, so it is a common condition.
The condition is usually worst during the spring and summer, as the pollen count is usually at its highest during these seasons, but it affects some people year-round. The pollen count is high generally on hot, dry and windy days, so your symptoms may be worse on days like this.
When your body comes into contact with the pollen, it can cause cold-like symptoms. Your nose, eyes mouth and throat release chemicals, which causes the allergic reaction.
The symptoms of hay fever can include:
- runny nose
- blocked nose
- watery eyes that may be itchy or red
- itchy nose
- itchy skin
- itchy throat and/or roof of the mouth
- itchy ears
- blocked sinuses
- shortness of breath, wheezing or coughing
- sinus pain or pressure
- a cough
- earache and headache
- loss of smell
- allergic shiners, which are swollen skin under your eyes, which may be purplish in colour
- post-nasal drip, which is when it feels like you have mucus running down the back of your throat
Hay fever can make the symptoms of asthma worse, and you may feel like your chest is very tight, wheeze when you breathe, have a cough or struggle to catch your breath.
You may not always need to see a GP, but hay fever can usually be diagnosed by one of our doctors during an online video consultation. The doctor will ask about your symptoms, whether they have any seasonal patterns and some other questions about your health, and usually this is all the information they will need.
A skin prick allergy test is available, but not usually required for standard hay fever. However, if your symptoms are different from the norm, tests may be required, and these can include blood tests.
You should see a doctor if:
- your symptoms do not respond to over-the-counter medicines
- your symptoms are severe
- you have symptoms all year round
- you experience side effects to over-the-counter medicine
- hay fever is making your asthma worse
Hay fever is caused by an allergy to pollen. When you’re exposed to the pollen, your immune system mistakenly recognises it as something harmful. To counter this perceived threat, the immune system releases antibodies. These tell your eyes, nose, mouth and throat to produce inflammatory chemicals, which causes the symptoms.
Most people are allergic to grass pollen, but there are many different types of pollen that can cause an allergic reaction, including:
- grass pollen (from May to July)
- tree pollen (from February to June
- weed pollen (from September to December)
If you have the symptoms year-round, you may be allergic to another type of allergen, such as dust mites, mould spores or pet hair.
There are certain things that may make you more prone to developing hay fever. These include:
- genetics - allergies can sometimes run in families, so if a close relative has hay fever, or other allergies, you are more at risk
- asthma - if you have asthma, you’re more likely to have hay fever
- other allergies, or allergic conditions - if you have other allergies or conditions like eczema, you’re more at risk of hay fever
- what time of year you’re born - if you’re born when the pollen count is high, you’re more at risk of hay fever
- smoke exposure - if you were exposed to smoke or diesel exhaust particles when you were little, your risk of hay fever is higher
- living or working somewhere you’re exposed to allergens
Is hay fever contagious?
Hay fever is not contagious so you cannot catch it from someone else. You may find that you have symptoms at the same time as people you know, due to hay fever being quite common and triggered by a high pollen count.
Hay fever is most commonly treated by an over-the-counter medicine called an antihistamine. It does not cure the condition, but controls and prevents the symptoms. These work best when they are taken before coming into contact with an allergen, so are often taken every day as a preventative measure when the pollen counts are high.
There are a number of different types of antihistamines - speak to a pharmacist about which are the most suitable for you. They are available as tablets, eye drops or nasal sprays.
You’ll find daily pollen counts on the Met Office’s website. On the days the pollen count is high, you can then be prepared for it.
You can lessen your dependency on hay fever medicine by taking certain steps yourself. These hay fever remedies include:
- showering and washing your hair after you’ve been outside on a high pollen count day
- wearing wraparound sunglasses or a wide brimmed hat to prevent pollen getting into your eyes whilst you’re outside or driving
- cleaning your home often to remove pollen from it
- not drying your clothes on a washing line or outside when the pollen count is high
- keeping windows closed when the pollen count is high, particularly in the mornings
- using a hoover with a HEPA filter, which catches the pollen
- putting a pollen filter over your car’s air vents
- keeping your car windows shut and using recirculated air to cool it down
- keeping pets outside, as they can carry pollen in their coats
- avoiding gardening when the pollen count is high
- not spending too much time in the countryside when pollen is more common - head to the seaside instead
You can find more tips about how to prevent hay fever in our blog here.
When to see a doctor
If over-the-counter antihistamines don’t work for you, if your hay fever is severe, you may need stronger treatment.
When you speak to a doctor they may also recommend or prescribe other hay fever treatments or prescription medication. These might include:
- Steroids, including injections or tablets
These may be prescribed by a GP if antihistamines don’t work for you, or if they’re not suitable for you.
Nasal sprays are usually used if you have a blocked nose and they help reduce inflammation. These can be used on a long term basis.
Tablets will only be prescribed on a short term basis however, as they can have side effects.
If no other treatments are successful, you may be referred for immunotherapy. This exposes you to tiny doses of the allergen, so that you can build up a resistance to it, relieving your symptoms. It’s sometimes called desensitisation.
If successful, the relief of the symptoms can last for years, but it is only usually used for people with extreme symptoms.
- Dr Colin Tidy. Patient info, Hay Fever and Seasonal Allergies, 27/07/2018.
- NHS, Hay fever, 21/12/2017.
- Mayo Clinic, Hay fever, 01/08/2018.
- NHS Inform, Hay Fever, 01/05/2018.
- Allergy UK, Statistics, 2018.
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Updated: February 12, 2021