Pollen allergy symptoms can spoil your day, week, even month – year after year. And no one should have to put up with that. So we’ve made this guide to help you manage your allergy better, whether it’s caused by tree, grass or weed pollen. You’ll find information on the causes, common symptoms and treatment options. We've got tips on avoiding the allergen too.
What is pollen allergy?
Pollen is the fine powder that plants release to fertilise other plants of the same species. Insects, birds and many types of animal carry it from flower to flower. The tiny particles also travel on the wind. People with pollen allergies react when they breathe them in.
So why is that? Well, the immune system mistakes the harmless dust for something dangerous. It tries to get rid of it from your body. This leads to allergy symptoms like sneezing, a stuffy or runny nose and watery eyes.
Symptoms: Allergic rhinitis
People don't tend to talk about pollen allergy, at least not in everyday conversation. It's better known as hay fever. They're not exactly the same thing. Allergy is the root cause; hay fever is the effect and the medical name is seasonal allergic rhinitis. Pollen allergy can give you all these different symptoms:
- Stuffy nose
- Runny nose, usually with clear fluid
- Itchy nose, palate and throat
- Post-nasal drip (the feeling of mucus moving down the back of your throat)
- Itchy, red or watery eyes
- Tight chest or wheezing
Pollen allergy and food
Some people with pollen allergy may get a mild reaction in their mouth, throat, lips or face when they eat certain foods. For instance apples could make your mouth tingle if you're allergic to birch pollen.
This is because proteins in the food resemble the allergens in your trigger pollen. It's called pollen food syndrome or oral allergy syndrome.
How could pollen allergy affect my life?
Many people find pollen season a very tricky time of year. Allergic rhinitis can make it hard to get a good night's sleep, leaving you feeling drained the next day. You may find it hard to concentrate whether you're at school, college or at work. Severe hay fever symptoms may mean you have to take time off and they can affect your emotional and mental health.
Which plants cause pollen allergy?
Bright colourful flowers with waxy pollen are not usually a problem. It’s the microscopic grains released by trees, grasses and weeds that tend to cause allergic reactions.
- Grass pollen: common meadow grass, meadow foxtail, sweet vernal grass, soft brome, wild oat, Timothy grass, ryegrass, Bermuda grass
- Tree pollen: birch, hazel, alder, ash, olive, cypress, oak
- Weed pollen: nettle, mugwort
Airborne pollen can travel great distances too. Scientists have found it more than 400 miles out at sea and 2 miles up in the air. And a single plant can release millions of grains in a day. Read more about different types of pollen here.
How long does pollen allergy last?
When you get symptoms and for how long will vary depending on the pollen season for your problem plant in your region. Trees tend to flower in spring so you could be sneezing soon after winter lifts if you have tree pollen allergy. Grass pollen allergy is at its peak in summer, spoiling picnics, outdoor sports and more. Autumn is when weed pollen allergy strikes.
Cold winters usually mean a later start; a warm wet spring can speed things up. Meanwhile the further north you go the shorter the pollen season. Pollen counts are also usually lower in towns than in the countryside, and on the coast compared to inland.
How do I know if I have any pollen allergies?
Only a doctor can tell you for sure. These are seasonal allergies so a stuffy nose all year round is unlikely to be pollen. How fast your symptoms develop is important too and how long they last. A cold usually builds up over a few days and lasts about a week; hay fever flares up fast and drags on. Read more about the difference between allergies and a cold.
Your GP will want to know if anyone else in your family has an allergy as it tends to be hereditary. They may also suggest an allergy test to help make the diagnosis.
Do I need an allergy test?
Guessing what you're allergic to won't get your symptoms sorted. Your GP will interpret any test results and take it from there.
The GP might arrange a skin prick test. There are also blood tests that look for Immunoglobulin E (IgE) – antibodies produced by your immune system in reaction to specific allergens. You can do one at home or at your local pharmacy, or your doctor might refer you to get tested.
Tips for people with pollen allergies
There are three main ways to help manage your symptoms:
- Avoid your allergen
- Treat acute symptoms
- Opt for long term relief
You can mix and match between these and find the combination that works for you. Let’s start with avoidance.
Check the pollen info
Every day your most useful tool is likely to be the pollen count, which you can check daily in our app. This tells you how much pollen is in the air. It might be better to stay home whenever pollen counts are high. But everyone reacts in a different way. You may feel fine despite a high pollen count or get symptoms on a day with a low count.
Our app has a way to deal with that. Log how you're feeling each day. The smiley on the homescreen will adapt to show you a personalised pollen score. It has a pollen calendar too.
A pollen calendar will show you when your problem plant usually flowers. That’ll help you plan ahead.
Lovely weather for pollen allergy
Wind, humidity and rain are the most important factors affecting the amount of pollen in the air. For example, pollen counts tend to go up on dry windy days. Many people will prefer to say no to meeting friends on a sunny afternoon in the park. If you do go out, it’s a good idea to take any allergy medication before leaving the house (more below). These three things may also help to keep pollen at bay:
- Wrap-around sunglasses
- Face mask
- Nasal filter or cellulose spray
6 ways to avoid hay fever at home
Managing your pollen allergies might become easier when you keep your home as free of all pollens as possible. Here are some tips to try:
- Keep windows and doors closed whenever you can
- Air the house only when the pollen count is low
- Think about putting in air conditioning or using special air purifiers9
- Wash your hair before bed and leave your clothes outside your bedroom
- Don't dry laundry outside – use a tumble dryer or hang it up inside
- Pets can pick up pollen and should sleep in the kitchen
Medications for hay fever symptoms
Antihistamines, decongestants and nasal sprays can all relieve hay fever. You shouldn't use decongestants for more than a few days in a row though. Many types of allergy meds are available over the counter but certain medications need a prescription. You may also be able to start taking them before your pollen season starts as a preventative measure. Ask your GP or pharmacist if this could help reduce your symptoms.
A saline nasal rinse can ease irritation and allergy symptoms. It flushes allergens out of your nose and is drug-free so you can use it alongside your usual medication.
Are you having trouble keeping your seasonal allergies under control? Sometimes it’s impossible to avoid your triggers all the time. Or it could be that symptomatic medication has stopped working. If so, your GP can refer you to a specialist who may suggest allergy immunotherapy.
Immunotherapy treats the underlying cause of your allergy. Controlled repeated exposure to the allergens helps your body to build up tolerance. The aim is that you stop reacting to it, bringing long term relief.
There are possible side effects, as with many medications. Your GP can talk you through the pros and cons.
We’re here to help
If you’ve read all the way to the end of this article, thank you. We’d love to know what you think. If you have any questions or would like to share your story of living with pollen allergy, email us or head over to our Facebook page.