If hay fever is kicking your butt this year, you’re not alone. Itchy eyes, runny noses and sneezes are seriously killing our summer vibes – with many people reporting that their symptoms are far worse than in previous years.
Hay fever, also known as seasonal allergic rhinitis, occurs when your body has an allergic reaction to pollen – typically when the pesky stuff comes into contact with your mouth, nose, eyes and throat.
Almost half of the UK population struggle with hay fever symptoms, suggests the charity Allergy UK. It was previously estimated to affect somewhere between 10 and 13 million people in the UK, or 20-30% of the population.
But a survey of 7,000 people by Allergy UK and Kleenex revealed that even more people may be struggling. There’s been a “significant increase” in the number of those with hay fever the charity said – with more than a third (37%) saying they had developed symptoms for the first time in the last five years.
Why is hay fever so bad this year?
Anecdotally, people have noticed their hay fever seems to be getting worse year on year – with 2021 seeing symptoms really ramp up a notch.
There are a few theories as to why this might be. Immunologist Professor Daniel Altmann, from Imperial College London, previously told HuffPost UK: “The working hypothesis for the ongoing creep of allergic disease over the past several years has been the ‘hygiene hypothesis’ – the idea that our immune systems were programmed during millennia of evolution to deal with quite a dirty planet, including bacterial infection and common parasitic infestations.”
With all of the washing, scrubbing and disinfecting as we’ve become cleaner, we may be left with an “inappropriately programmed” immune system, making us susceptible to allergy and asthma, he suggests. “During this past year in lockdown, we’ve all lived in our homes in an even cleaner microbiological environment. It could be that we’ll see yet more allergy in the future.”
Dr Chris Rutkowski, a consultant allergist and Head of the Department of Allergy at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital in London, suggested there might be a few reasons why people appear to be suffering more right now.
“First of all, recently, the weather was quite good – between 18°C and 20°C, dry and sunny, without much rain – perfect conditions for grass pollen to be released. So obviously we might be suffering more,” he told BBC Breakfast.
He also suggested people might be struggling because they spent a lot of time indoors during the various UK lockdowns, meaning they were barely exposed to any pollen – and this is resulting in an even bigger reaction now.
“If you are spending [more time] indoors, obviously you inhale less pollen but also you have no chance to build immunity – your body has no chance to get used to pollen,” he said.
“So then when restrictions were lifted and suddenly we started enjoying the beautiful outdoors and being exposed to pollen, like now for example, people might be experiencing more severe symptoms.”
Allergy UK suggests the increase in hay fever allergies may be closely linked to rising temperatures in the UK. Amena Warner, head of clinical services, says evidence suggests climate change and increasing temperatures may contribute to extending the grass pollen season in the UK – and grass pollen is the cause of the majority of pollen-driven hay fever symptoms.
“Human activities have increased atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases,” explains Warner. “Studies show plants produce more pollen as a response to high atmospheric levels of CO2, so people may find their hay fever is worse when pollution levels are high, especially in warm weather.
“These are the factors that lead us to expect rising pollen levels in the UK in the coming years, triggering the unpleasant symptoms of hay fever over longer periods.”
How to tell the difference between Covid and hay fever
Typical symptoms of hay fever include:
- sneezing and coughing
- a runny or blocked nose
- itchy, red or watery eyes
- itchy throat, mouth, nose and ears
- loss of smell
- pain around your temples and forehead
- feeling tired
Meanwhile the three classic symptoms of Covid listed by the NHS are:
- a high temperature
- a new, continuous cough
- a loss or change to your sense of smell or taste
More recently, it’s been suggested that common Covid symptoms are changing which might make things slightly more confusing for hay fever sufferers.
The Delta variant appears to cause different coronavirus symptoms to those we’re used to, and more reminiscent of a bad cold, according to the lead researcher behind the Zoe Covid Symptom Study.
Professor Tim Spector, an expert in genetic epidemiology from King’s College London, said the number one reported symptom is now a headache, followed by sore throat, runny nose and fever – “all those are not the old classic symptoms,” said Prof Spector.”[Symptom] number five is cough, it’s rarer, and we don’t even see loss of smell coming into the top 10 anymore. This variant seems to be working slightly differently.”
If you have any of the classic three symptoms of Covid you should order a PCR test as soon as possible. However if your symptoms are more reminiscent of a cold and you want peace of mind, you can order free lateral flow tests via the government’s website.
How to keep hay fever symptoms at bay
1. Change clothes as soon as you get home
When you’re outside, pollen can stick to your clothes. This might explain why you’re feeling sneezy long after you get home. Changing into something else straight away is a good idea.
2. Hang clothes to dry indoors (or tumble dry them)
Washing your clothes will get rid of pollen, but drying them outside could put you back where you started, especially if it’s a windy day. If you can, dry clothes inside to stop pollen getting to them.
3. Avoid going out at certain times
Pollen tends to be at its most annoying early in the morning and late in the evening, when it rises with the hotter air and falls as the temperature cools down. With this in mind, it’s best to make plans for the middle of the day if you can.
4. Rinse your hair regularly
Your hair is another place for pollen to latch on to and cause hay fever symptoms, so giving it a regular rinse will stop this happening. You don’t need to use any shampoo here. Water will do the job fine on its own.
5. Keep pets clean
Stopping people bringing pollen into your home is one thing. Stopping your pets is a little more challenging. The best you can do is give them a regular brush or bath during hay fever season.
6. Keep an eye on the weather forecast and act accordingly
Pay attention to the weather forecast and you’ll usually discover whether pollen is out in force that day. If the pollen count isn’t mentioned, you can find out from your local news website. If the count is really high and your symptoms are severe, it might be best to stay indoors.
7. Keep windows closed
If pollen can’t get to you, your hay fever won’t flare up. So whether you’re at home or in the car, keep those windows shut. This may be difficult on a really hot day, so make sure you have a fan or air conditioning to keep you cool.
8. Avoid gardening
Good news for anyone who hates mowing the lawn. Gardening is obviously going to leave you exposed to pollen, so this is one chore you can excuse yourself from. Having said that, some grasses are more likely to release pollen the taller they’re allowed to grow, so if you can, get someone who doesn’t have hay fever to do it for you.
9. Choose your sunglasses carefully
Sunglasses can shield your eyes from more than just the sun. If itchy eyes are one of your hay fever symptoms, the right pair of shades can help keep pollen away. Wraparound styles are the most effective.
10. Defend your nose
Anything you can do to stop pollen getting into your nose will help stop hay fever symptoms. One way to do this is by applying Vaseline around your nostrils to trap the pollen.
11. Stop smoking
Like any form of air pollution, cigarette smoke will irritate the lining of your airways and make your allergies worse.
12. Head for the sea
Studies have shown hay fever symptoms can be more likely to occur in a big city because of increased air pollution. With that in mind, a trip to the beach could be just what you need to calm your symptoms, as that refreshing sea breeze blows pollen inland.
13. Eat a spicy meal
If your hay fever causes a stuffy, blocked nose, a hot curry could be the answer. Spicy chilli peppers can help to widen your airways and make it easier to breathe, while other spices, such as turmeric, are natural anti-inflammatories that can help relieve symptoms.
14. Eat your berries and beans
One of the best nutrients for hay fever is a flavanol called quercetin, which studies have shown can suppress histamine production. Foods that are high in quercetin include green vegetables, berries, beans and apples.
Eating foods rich in beta carotene (carrots, spinach, any yellow fruit) and omega 3 (oily fish) are two more ways to soothe your blocked nose and painful sinuses.
15. Try a new tea
If you like to start the day with a cup of tea, there are lots of options that will help you manage your hay fever. Try a camomile or nettle tea to relieve your symptoms, as both have antihistamine and anti-inflammatory properties.
16. Stay away from foods that produce histamine
Histamine is the chemical your body produces in response to infection. It causes swelling that protects your body, but in hay fever sufferers, it’s released when it’s not needed.
The last thing you want to do is make your symptoms worse, so you should probably avoid foods that either contain histamine or will encourage your body to produce more of it. Some offending items include pickles, cured and smoked meat and fish, cheese, nuts and alcohol.
17. Find the right antihistamine
Antihistamines are the most common treatment for hay fever. Use them when you experience symptoms or, if you know which type of pollen you’re allergic to, you can take them during your hay fever season to stop symptoms before they happen. However, some antihistamines may make you drowsy, so it’s important to see a doctor and make sure you’re getting an effective medicine that won’t disrupt your day.
18. Ask about nasal sprays
If a blocked nose is your main problem, doctors can suggest an effective nasal spray. It’s important to choose the correct spray for you. A simple decongestant may be all you need, while more severe symptoms may require a prescription for a corticosteroid spray.
Dr Sophie Farooque, an allergy consultant, suggested people often say steroid sprays don’t work. But they do – it’s just you’ve probably been using them wrong. She recommends starting using nasal sprays before the pollen season kicks in, but if you haven’t, that’s totally fine. Her advice is proving to be a bit of a game-changer for hay fever sufferers.
She suggests washing your nose out with a salt water rinse before using your nasal spray. This is because “if your nose is snotty, then the spray will dissolve in the snot and won’t reach the lining of your nose”.
Another top tip from the allergy specialist is not to close one nostril when using your nasal spray. “It just pushes the bony septum across and that is not the part where the problem is,” she explained in a Twitter thread.
So what to do instead? Using your right hand for your left nostril, put the nozzle just inside your nose, aiming towards the outside wall of your nostril, and then switch hands to do the same again in your right nostril.
While it can be tempting to sniff as you spray into your nose, don’t do it. Instead, breathe in and out gently. “If you sniff you will eat your snot but also the spray, so it won’t work as well,” said Dr Farooque.
19. Invest in eye drops
For hay fever sufferers who are mainly affected by problems with their eyes, eye drops can help. They contain antihistamines and can help with symptoms such as itching, redness and watering.
How to sleep better with hay fever
1. Wash your sheets more
Sadly, washing your sheets once a fortnight just won’t cut the mustard in the weeks to come. “In hay fever season, consider washing your sheets once a week to keep sheets free of pollen, as well as dust and other particles that might make symptoms worse,” says Alison Jones, chief sleep officer at Sealy UK.
A hot wash should do the trick. A study found that washing items at hotter temperatures was more effective at removing traces of tree pollen, so when you wash your sheets, make sure it’s at a temperature of 40C or above – ideally at least 60C.
2. Banish pets from the bedroom
Yes you might love having your cat or dog curled up at the end of the bed, but they’re actually a nightmare for allergy sufferers as their fur can trap pollen, dust and other allergens. Not ideal.
3. Shower before bed
If you find your allergy symptoms worsen at night, try jumping in the shower before you hit the sack. At the end of a long day, your hair, skin and clothes will be covered in micro-particles of dust and pollen, especially if you’ve spent long periods outside enjoying the sunshine.
4. Switch up your medication
If you take medication to relieve your symptoms, consider when you are suffering the most and make sure you’re taking it at the appropriate time.
Keep a diary of symptoms and notice the times of day you have flare ups. If night time is when you suffer the most, it might be worth taking medication before bed so you reap the full benefits.