What is hay fever?

Hay fever, also known as allergic rhinitis, is an allergic reaction to pollen that tends to be most severe between March and September. Hay fever doesn’t pose a serious threat to your health but it can be disruptive to your daily routine, especially during the summer months. When managed with the right medication and lifestyle changes, hay fever symptoms can be brought under control.

What causes hay fever?

Hay fever is caused by your immune system mistaking pollen for something harmful and releasing a substance called histamine. Histamine causes the characteristic symptoms of hay fever (see below).

There are several different types of pollen, but most people who have hay fever are allergic to grass pollen. You might also be allergic to tree pollen, weeds, and fungal spores.

Hay fever symptoms vary depending on the amount and types of pollen in the air – most people only suffer bad symptoms when there is a lot of pollen in the air. In spring and summer, the pollen count (the number of pollen grains in one cubic metre of air) is particularly high for tree pollen, grass pollen and weeds. Some pollens are also found in the air in late autumn and winter.

What are the symptoms of hay fever?

Hay fever is easy to identify as its symptoms are usually triggered by going outside on a warm, dry day. If you have hay fever you’ll probably start to sneeze and cough, and your eyes will become red, watery, and itchy. You may also have a runny or blocked nose.

Itching in the throat, mouth, nose, and ears is common, as is pain in the head. You might develop earache, lose your sense of smell, and start to feel very tired.

How is hay fever treated?

You may or may not need to speak to a doctor if you’re suffering from hay fever. If your symptoms are obviously related to hay fever you can simply visit a pharmacy for advice and treatment. If you aren’t sure what’s causing your symptoms, if they’re particularly severe, or if they don’t improve after taking pharmacy medicines, you should speak to a doctor.

Typically, hay fever symptoms can be managed with medicines that don’t require a prescription such as antihistamine tables, antihistamine nasal sprays, corticosteroid nasal sprays, and eye drops. These treatments can be used to prevent symptoms, and to treat symptoms when they arise.

In addition you can try some home remedies:

- Shower and wash your hair after going outside

- Rinse your nose with salt water or use steam inhalation to remove pollen

- Soak a clean flannel in cold water and press it over your eyes to ease soreness and itching

If you find that pharmacy treatments are ineffective you can speak to a doctor about prescription treatments (some prescription treatments are simply stronger versions of over-the-counter products). In rare cases, if your hay fever symptoms are very severe, you might be prescribed a short course of steroid tablets.

You can also be referred to an allergy specialist for immunotherapy. This is where you receive small doses of pollen to help reset your immune system and prevent it from “overreacting” to that pollen. This will only be offered to people who have very severe and disruptive hay fever symptoms.

You can find out more about how hay fever is treated by booking an online consultation with Doctor Care Anywhere.

How can I prevent hay fever symptoms?

If you know you suffer from hay fever it’s a good idea to make a few changes to your lifestyle:

- Between March and September, keep an eye on the daily pollen count so that you can be prepared if it is very high

- When possible stay inside on high-pollen days with the windows closed

- Put a pollen filter in your car and keep windows closed when driving

- Avoid grassy areas

- Wear wraparound sunglasses to protect your eyes

- Put barrier balm (e.g. Vaseline) around the insides of your nostrils – this will pick up pollen and prevent it from entering your nose

- Avoid drying washing outside

- Always shower and change your clothes after coming inside on a high-pollen day

In addition, you should get acquainted with hay fever pharmacy treatments. Make sure you always have antihistamines to hand, particularly during the summer, and use preventative treatments such as nasal sprays.

Content reviewed by Jemma Shafier, a Doctor Care Anywhere GP