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Hay fever

Hay fever, medically termed  as seasonal allergic rhinitis, is a common condition caused by an allergic reaction to tree, grass and weed pollens.

What is Hay fever?

Hay fever is an allergy to pollen. It’s usually worse during the spring and summer months, and affects over a fifth of the UK population.

The most common allergy is to grass pollen which is usually in the air between May –July. Tree pollen season is from February to June, and weed season is June-September.

It can affect anyone, and people can develop it any time in their lifetime.

What are the symptoms of hay fever?

Hay fever sufferers report some or all of the following symptoms:

  • Frequent sneezing
  • A blocked nose
  • A continuously runny nose
  • Loss of smell
  • Itchy, watery, irritated or red eyes
  • An itchy throat or itching in the ears or in the roof of your mouth
  • A ‘postnasal drip’ where a runny nose drips back down into your throat which can cause you to cough
  • A headache caused by blocked sinuses
  • Tiredness

If you have asthma you may also experience:

  • A tight feeling in your chest
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing and coughing

What causes hay fever?

Pollen is released by all plants as part of their normal reproductive cycle. Usually a very fine powder, pollen is easily transferred by wind. Unfortunately, this also means that it can easily get into our noses, eyes and throats.

If you’re an allergy sufferer and exposed to the relevant allergen, your body mistakenly believes it to be harmful and releases a substance called histamine. It’s this histamine in the nose, throat and eyes and sometimes the chest which causes the typical symptoms of hay fever.

How is hay fever diagnosed?

If you think that you may have hay fever visit your pharmacist, GP or a specialist.

You may be advised to get an allergy test. The most common type is a skin prick test. This will involve stopping antihistamine tablets for 72 hours beforehand. During the test, your specialist allergy doctor will draw a grid on your arm and place a drop of liquid into each square.

Each liquid contains a different allergen. Your doctor will gently prick through the liquid into the top of the skin in each square. The allergens you’re allergic to will cause an itchy, red bump to appear within around 15 minutes. Those that you’re not allergic to won’t cause any reaction. You may then identify what to avoid.

Another way to determine your allergens is via a specific IgE blood test organised by your GP.

How is hay fever treated?

There are several types of over-the-counter medication that can help with hay fever:

  • Antihistamines
  • Nasal sprays
  • Eye drops

Buy anti-histamines that are non-drowsy eg loratadine (such as Clarityn), cetirizine (such as Zirtek), acrivastine (such as Benadryl) or fexofenadine (AlleviaÒ). If these don’t work for you your GP may be able to prescribe a different, stronger antihistamine.

If you are needing anti-histamines regularly and they are not providing complete relief, you should start a corticosteroid nasal sprays. This is in fact the single most effective treatment for hay fever. These types of steroids are not absorbed into the blood stream, so are very safe but ideally should be started 2 weeks before the pollen season as they take time to get into the system. They need to be used daily to stop the effect from wearing off. They can be bought over the counter (OTC) for example Pirinase or prescribed by the GP- (such as Avamys or Nasonex.)

Eyedrops can also be bought over the counter – these contain sodium cromoglycate. But if these don’t help, ask your doctor for alternatives on prescription.

If your hayfever is not controlled on the above medications, a type of pollen vaccine called allergen immunotherapy is recommended. This can only be prescribed by allergy specialist doctors.

Immunotherapy involves slowly exposing you to small amounts of different pollens, either under the tongue as self-administration (sub-lingual immunotherapy; SLIT) or by injection in hospital (sub-cutaneous immunotherapy; SCIT), under medical supervision. The idea is that it builds up your tolerance level to pollen, but it is a three-year course.

You can also help relieve symptoms by:

  • Checking the pollen forecast and staying indoors on days with a high pollen count
  • Avoiding freshly cut grass or wooded areas
  • Keeping windows and doors closed
  • Showering and washing your hair at the end of the day, including washing your clothes, as pollen can stick to you
  • Drying your clothes indoor
  • Wearing wraparound glasses and putting Vaseline inside your nostrils
  • An air purifier or humidifier may help

If you’re unsure what treatment you should go for, or the OTC treatments don’t work for you, our team of expert specialists are here to help.

This content has been checked and approved by

Dr. F. Runa Ali  ›

Dr. F. Runa Ali is a highly experience Consultant in Allergy & Respiratory medicine at King Edward VII’s Hospital. Dr Ali set up King Edward VII’s Hospital first-ever dedicated Allergy clinic in 2009 and continues to work with allergy and respiratory patients on a regular bases.

Find your specialist in Hay fever at King Edward VII's Hospital

If you suspect you have Hay fever and you’re seeking an expert opinion, you can find the UK’s leading hay fever allergy specialists here at King Edward VII’s Hospital. Our consultants are hand-picked for you, making it easy to access the best possible care.

Miss Nara Orban  ›
Special interests include:
Allergies (+ 17) more
Dr. F. Runa Ali  ›
Special interests include:
Allergy medicine (+ 12) more

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