Hay fever is the common name for a condition called allergic rhinitis, which means an allergy that affects the nose.
Most people associate hay fever with spring, when airborne pollens from grasses are at their peak. However, hay fever can occur at any time of the year. This is known as perennial allergic rhinitis, which is usually caused by a reaction to allergens around the home, such as dust mites, moulds, animal hair or fur, or occupational allergens.
Symptoms of hay fever
Some of the symptoms include:
- a runny or stuffy nose
- itchy ears, nose and throat
- red, itchy or watery eyes
In some cases, the symptoms of hay fever can be so severe that a person can’t sleep or concentrate, and may feel tired or unwell.
Hay fever is an allergic reaction
Your nose acts as a filter. The tiny hairs and mucus that line the nasal passages trap dust, pollens and other microscopic particles. A person with hay fever is allergic to some of the particles that get trapped in the nose, such as pollen.
An allergic reaction means the immune system treats a harmless substance as if it is dangerous, and launches an ‘attack’. The nasal passages become inflamed and more mucus is produced.
Staying informed about pollen counts
Figure 1: pollen counters operated by Melbourne Pollen and Deakin AirWatch
Visit the Melbourne Pollen Count and Forecast website, or download the Melbourne Pollen Count app for information about the six pollen monitoring sites managed by the University of Melbourne.
Or, visit the Deakin AirWatch website for information about the two pollen monitoring sites managed by Deakin University.
Reducing hay fever symptoms
Suggestions to prevent or limit symptoms of hay fever include:
- Stay indoors as much as possible on windy days in spring and in wind gusts that come before the storm.
- In your garden, choose plants that are pollinated by birds or insects, rather than plants that release their seeds into the air.
- Splash your eyes often with cold water to flush out any pollen.
- Reduce your exposure to dust and dust mites, animals and animal hair or fur (dander).
Treatment for hay fever
Some medications may help relieve the symptoms of hay fever. Ask your GP or pharmacist for advice. You may be advised to try:
- intranasal corticosteroid sprays – these nasal sprays contain very low-dose steroids and are one of the most effective treatments for allergic rhinitis. They need to be used regularly as directed to be effective
- non-sedating antihistamine medications – these may be useful to control sneezing and itching, but are not as effective as intranasal corticosteroid sprays to control a severely blocked or runny nose. Ask your GP or pharmacist for advice if you are breastfeeding, as some medications can cause breastfed babies to become irritable and restless
- eye drops – may relieve itchy, swollen or runny eyes. Ask your GP or pharmacist for advice on choosing the correct eye drops
- decongestant nasal sprays – are useful for quick relief, but should not be used for more than five days as long-term use can damage the lining of the nose. Certain people should not use decongestants (such as those who are pregnant, or have high blood pressure). Discuss with your GP or pharmacist before using these medications
- allergen immunotherapy – some people may benefit from allergen immunotherapy, which exposes a person to increasing amounts of an allergen to improve tolerance and reduce symptoms. This therapy may help hay fever and some cases of asthma, but does not help food allergy. It should only be conducted under medical supervision.
Hay fever and thunderstorm asthma
Grass pollen season brings an increase in asthma and hay fever. It also brings the chance of thunderstorm asthma.
Grass pollen grains get swept up in the wind and carried for long distances. Some can burst open and release tiny particles that are concentrated in the wind gusts that come just before a thunderstorm. These particles are small enough to be breathed deep into the lungs and can trigger asthma symptoms, making it difficult to breathe.
For people with hay fever – especially those who experience wheezing or coughing with their hay fever – thunderstorm asthma can be sudden, serious and even life threatening.
Having good control of your hay fever can help reduce your risk of thunderstorm asthma.
If you have hay fever:
- Talk to your pharmacist or GP about what you can do to help protect yourself from the risk of thunderstorm asthma.
- See your pharmacist or GP for a hay fever treatment plan and check if you should have an asthma reliever puffer – these are available from pharmacies without prescription.
- Check with your GP whether you also have asthma. If you experience wheezing and coughing with your hay fever, speak to your GP today about whether you might have asthma.
- Where possible avoid being outside during thunderstorms from October through December – especially in the wind gusts that come before the storm. Go inside and close your doors and windows. If you have your air conditioning on, turn it onto recirculate.
- If you develop asthma symptoms, follow the four steps of asthma first aid and make sure you follow up with your GP.
Where to get help
This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by:
Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA)
Content on this website is provided for education and information purposes only. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your doctor or other registered health professional. Content has been prepared for Victorian residents and wider Australian audiences, and was accurate at the time of publication. Readers should note that, over time, currency and completeness of the information may change. All users are urged to always seek advice from a registered health care professional for diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.