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Navigating hay fever season: tips, triggers and climate connection

Red, itchy and swollen eyes. Runny nose. A constant soundtrack of sneezes and a faint ‘bless you’ echoed after each inevitable reaction to the seasonal change in the weather. It’s a sign that hay fever season is well and truly in session.

For most, Spring conjures images of sunshine, warm breezes and flowers in bloom, but for up to 1 in 5 Australians, it’s the start of a difficult time according to Deakin University Associate Professor of Epidemiology, Hassan Vally.

‘It is a much bigger problem than people appreciate,’ he explains. So, we caught up to understand why so many people get hay fever while others get to, literally, smell the roses, why symptoms can be worse in some seasons (spoiler: climate change might have something to do with it), and how to make allergy season a tad more bearable.

What exactly is hay fever?

Seasonal allergic rhinitis, as it’s scientifically known, refers to a set of allergies that lead to upper respiratory tract symptoms including sneezing, a runny or congested nose, and itchy or watery eyes.

These symptoms are often set off by common triggers, with pollens and grass allergens topping the list according to Assoc. Prof. Vally, and reaching the peak of their powers in the spring and summer months.

After months of cold weather and rain, it can be a cruel twist of fate to spend the warmer months with a box of aloe vera tissues in one hand and nasal spray in the other.

‘Some individuals may be more triggered by different allergens compared with others; for example, tree pollens might be the culprit for one person while a specific type of grass might set off another.’

While the exact reasons some individuals experience hay fever more acutely than others remains somewhat enigmatic, ‘it is clear there is a genetic component. However, the intensity of symptoms depends on the level of exposure to the allergens.’

Some people’s immune systems may overreact to allergens, leading to an allergic response and the development of hay fever. In fact, having pre-existing allergies, asthma, or eczema can increase your risk of developing hay fever.

As the plants spring into action, so does the sneezing

Seasonal and environmental factors which impact the respiratory system, such as weather changes, car pollution or smoking, can also make someone more susceptible to hay fever and trigger an allergic response.

‘Anything that can influence the growth of plants can influence the allergens in the environment,’ resulting in an excess of pollen, explains Assoc. Prof. Vally.

This in turn impacts your immune system and sends your body into a panic, resulting in the quintessential sneezing and spluttering (courtesy of your nasal passages and lungs).

Different regions feel the impact differently, largely due to their unique climates and this often dictates the severity of symptoms experienced by hay fever sufferers.

‘The location and the time of year can significantly influence whether people experience symptoms and the intensity.’

Assoc. Prof. Vally continues that this correlation extends to weather events that we’re encountering more frequently, such as La Niña.

‘La Niña weather events can be associated with cooler and wetter conditions in many areas, which promote the growth of plants that can trigger hay fever symptoms.’

Such weather changes can be seen as a direct result of climate change, altering the quantity of pollen that plants release and when, with pollen seasons becoming more unpredictable and more intense.

How to manage these symptoms

‘One of the things people can do to help manage their hay fever is to find out specifically what they are allergic to, so that they can focus on preventing exposure to these allergens where they live and work,’ explains Assoc. Prof. Vally.

But Assoc. Prof. Valley is a realist and understands this isn’t always possible. Enter: antihistamines, a mainstay for effectively fighting hay fever symptoms. While this over-the-counter solution – think Claratyne, Telfast, etc – can help the common hay fever sufferer, one of the recommended strategies for those who have persistent symptoms is to use nasal sprays, which reduce inflammation in the lining of the nose, he explains.

‘These sprays must be used regularly and correctly to be effective,’ continues Assoc. Prof. Vally.

Of course, there are environmental changes that sufferers can make to help alleviate the impact, such as using HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) air filters in their air conditioner (which sees the most use during these warmer months), monitoring high pollen count via sites like Pollen Count and Forecast, and keeping windows closed on high pollen count days to keep these nasty allergens where they belong, outside.

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Hassan Vally
Hassan Vally

Associate Professor Epidemiology,

Faculty of Health,

Deakin University

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