What is birch pollen allergy?
Birch is beautiful. It has striking bark in silvery white, salmon or glossy red. This makes it a favourite species for streets, parks and private gardens. Birch trees tolerate cold northern winters and thrive where the summer is not too hot. Which is why birch grows, and gives people hay fever, so widely.
Birch pollen is one of two main causes of seasonal allergies in the UK (the other is grass). Birch is a major cause of sniffles and sneezes. It can affect your eyes and make you cough. In other words, it can be a real nuisance. But birch pollen allergy can be manageable, if you know how.
Why does birch pollen allergy happen?
Birch pollen allergy happens when your immune system detects the very fine particles. Most people won't have allergic reactions if they breathe in birch pollen. But in allergy your body thinks a harmless substance like this is a threat.
Your immune system won't react the first time it encounters birch pollen. It prepares your body for the next encounter by producing antibodies known as IgE (immunoglobulin E). Now you’re sensitised and could go on to develop birch pollen allergy symptoms.
In which case…
The IgE antibodies will rush to protect you when you inhale birch pollen again. They trigger the release of substances such as histamine and tell white blood cells to launch an immune response against the pollen. This is an allergic reaction.
What are birch pollen allergy symptoms?
Birch pollen allergy has the same effect as other common airborne allergens. Symptoms are grouped under the umbrella of hay fever or allergic rhinitis. It varies from person to person but you’re likely to get some or all of the following:
- Stuffy nose (nasal congestion)
- Runny nose, usually with clear fluid
- Itchy nose
- Post-nasal drip (the feeling of mucus moving down the back of your throat)
- Itchy, red, or watery eyes
- Tight chest or wheezing
- Sinus inflammation/pain
Birch pollen allergy can have wider effects too
Hay fever symptoms may stop you feeling your best. They can disrupt your sleep and make school or work a bit of a struggle. In some people, severe birch pollen allergy may even contribute to anxiety or depression.
The impact on your life is likely to be greatest when your symptoms are least well controlled. That sounds obvious but sometimes we accept how we feel as normal when it isn’t at all.
If you think that could be you, maybe it’s time to see your GP.
But why is birch pollen so allergenic?
Tree pollen tends to be finer than many other types that cause seasonal allergies. This makes it especially easy to breathe in. And birch trees are producers of tons of the tiny particles. Each catkin or flower may release six million pollen grains. These can travel long distances on the wind. Considering what a common tree this is, it’s no wonder birch pollen is responsible for so many sneezes.
Did you know…?
Both the silver birch and the downy birch trees grow all over Europe. They prefer colder climates, but you can see them as far south as Italy. In fact, many southern European cities are now planting birch and other non-native trees in parks, which is changing the local pollen count. This means you may not be symptom-free on your Mediterranean spring holiday.
When is peak season for birch pollen allergy?
Seasonal allergies kick off again after a quiet winter when trees begin flowering. For birch, this is usually from the end of March, before or just as the leaves unfurl, until May. Pollen levels are highest on bright days that are relatively warm and dry.
Birch pollen levels can vary by a staggering 400%. Birch trees usually have a bumper year followed by a quieter one but the weather can upset that pattern. And scientists think climate change may already be causing plants to produce more pollen for longer. Birch pollen seasons may look quite different in years to come.
It’s not just birch that causes birch pollen allergy symptoms
Some people who are allergic to birch pollen also get hay fever when they’re exposed to other plants. It’s because the proteins that cause an allergic reaction can be similar in different pollens types. Your immune system can mistake the other allergen for your trigger and start to fight back in the same way. This is called a cross-reaction.
You might also react to alder, hazel, hornbeam and oak, all of which flower at slightly different times. Grass (summer flowering) and mugwort (autumn) also have similar proteins to birch pollen allergens. Were you to have cross-reactions to both, this could extend your hay fever season from weeks to months.
Birch pollen allergy or food allergy?
Eating certain foods can also produce a reaction if you have birch allergy. This is pollen food syndrome or oral allergy syndrome. It’s another type of cross-reactivity that happens with other pollen allergies too.
Your body responds to certain fruit, vegetables, nuts or spices as if it was encountering the pollen. Birch cross-reacts with apples, apricots, cherries, peaches, pears, plums, kiwi, carrot, celery, parsley, peanut, soybean, almonds or hazelnuts. These foods contain similar allergenic proteins. Pollen food syndrome doesn’t cause hay fever. Instead you might get a mild, local reaction in your mouth and throat, lips and face.
Heat breaks down the proteins so you may be able to avoid a tingly mouth by cooking these foods. Try swapping carrot sticks for carrot cake or pasteurised peach juice for a fresh peach and see if it makes a difference to your oral symptoms.
Mouth or throat itching after eating peanut, soybean, almonds and hazelnuts can also be an early warning of more serious food allergies. See your GP if you’re having these mild local allergic reactions.
Can I get tested for birch pollen allergy?
Yes. And that’s something your GP might suggest. There are two common ways to check for the presence of birch pollen IgE antibodies. The first is a skin prick test. This involves putting a small amount of an allergen onto your forearm and gently scratching the skin. You then wait around 15-20 minutes to see if there’s any reaction. An itchy raised red bump like an insect bite means you’re sensitised. Skin prick tests are likely to include birch pollen and some other allergens. The alternative, the allergy blood test, may also look for a range of different antibodies. You can do this through your GP or take our Home Allergy Test.
Allergy testing is just the start. Your doctor will interpret the results alongside you and your family’s medical history as well as your symptoms. Knowing whether they happen at a certain time of year or in a certain place can help them make their diagnosis.
How do I control my birch pollen allergy?
A good first step is to try limit your exposure to birch pollen. Avoiding places where you know the trees grow can help. But you don't need to shun the great outdoors completely. Our free app will show you when the seasons for specific pollens begin and end. You also get a three-day forecast predicting pollen levels for birch and other allergenic trees, grasses and weeds where you live. You can also check the local pollen forecast here. Then you can plan ahead and take precautions. That could mean taking hay fever medication before you go out and wearing a hat and sunglasses
For tips on what to do to keep your home pollen free, read our hay fever article. There’s a lot you can do with a damp cloth, a vacuum cleaner and your washing machine. And by keeping dogs and cats out of your bedroom.
Treatments for birch pollen allergy symptoms
Birch pollen exposure may be unavoidable. In which case there are medicines and drug-free measures that can help ease the symptoms of hay fever. These include:
Antihistamines: These work by blocking histamine, the substance that causes many allergy symptoms. You can take antihistamines a couple of weeks before birch pollen season as a preventative measure. It helps to build up protective levels in your blood. Newer antihistamines may not cause the same drowsiness that older ones do. Ask your pharmacy about over-the-counter tablets, eyedrops and nasal sprays for mild symptoms. Stronger forms need a prescription from your GP.
You can use antihistamines or combined with steroids. It depends on what works best for you and helps to control your birch pollen allergy symptoms.
- Corticosteroids: Used daily corticosteroid nasal sprays can help reduce the inflammation caused by breathing in birch pollen. You might find it takes up to two weeks before you feel the benefit. So again it can be helpful to begin before birch begins to flower.
- Nasal irrigation: Saline nasal sprays are a good way to flush irritating allergens out of your nose. Studies have also shown that using a saline spray seems to be an effective way to ease the symptoms of allergic rhinitis – hay fever. It’s also a drug free option for people wanting that.
Is there a cure for birch pollen allergy?
Not yet. But there is a treatment that tackles the root cause of the disease. That’s allergy immunotherapy. Your doctor may suggest it if the medicines above are not working well enough to control your allergy symptoms. And if it’s right for you.
Allergy immunotherapy involves being exposed to repeated tiny doses of birch pollen so that your body becomes desensitized. Effectively your immune system stops seeing it as a threat. This should mean fewer symptoms and less need for allergy medication.