Home » Why the hay fever struggle is real right now in Australia

Why the hay fever struggle is real right now in Australia

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Many people in Australia are finally basking in the warm weather as the rain begins to subside - but for others, the sunny days can be less of a blessing and more of a curse.

About one in five Australians suffer from hay fever and health authorities are warning them to brace for particularly bad pollen levels over the next few months due to the wetter-than-normal winter driven by the La Niña climate pattern.

What are the symptoms of hay fever?

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The official name for hay fever is allergic rhinitis. The Australian Government's Healthdirect website says it "describes a reaction that occurs when your nose or eyes come in contact with allergens to which you are sensitive" and includes the following common symptoms:

an itchy, runny or blocked noseitchy or watery eyesfrequent sneezingneeding to breathe from the mouthalways needing to clear your throatalways feeling like you have a head coldsnoring during sleep

What can hay fever sufferers expect in the coming weeks?

It has been an unusually late start to the hay fever season this year due to ongoing rain but Australians are now being warned about rising pollen levels from grass as well as flowering trees and other sources as the sun comes out.Pollen forecaster Melbourne Pollen, run by the University of Melbourne, is predicting high to extreme pollen counts across Victoria this week, while a . The Australian Medical Association (NSW) has urged residents to be careful as thunderstorm asthma warnings are issued around the state.
Bureau of Meteorology forecaster Jonathan Howe said the first bursts of warm weather this spring, after a particularly wet winter in eastern parts of Australia, meant lots of flowers, grass and trees were starting to bloom. Winds were also pushing some of the pollen towards populated areas such as Melbourne and Canberra.

"We have seen just a huge explosion in the pollen level," he said.

We have seen just a huge explosion in the pollen level.

- BoM forecaster Jonathan Howe

In particular, Victoria is seeing high to extreme pollen counts, and pollen levels are also increasing in NSW and the ACT.

Is Australia particularly bad for hay fever?

Australia is believed to have one of the highest rates of hay fever in the world and was ranked seventh for allergic rhinitis in The International Study of Asthma and Allergies in Childhood (ISAAC) study in 2006.About 19 per cent of Australians suffered from hay fever in 2017/18, according to the .

The most impacted appear to be those in Australia's capital, with around 29 per cent of people in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) suffering from the condition, compared to just 14 per cent in the Northern Territory.

Why is this year different to others?

Professor Janet Davies, head of the Allergy Research Group at the Queensland University of Technology, said grass pollen levels generally peaked in Melbourne between October and early December.

The season starts later the further north you go, so Sydney and Canberra residents generally experience it in spring but also get some secondary peaks in summer.

A man jogging in a street where the purple flowers of the jacaranda tree are in bloomA man jogging in a street where the purple flowers of the jacaranda tree are in bloom

Sydney's jacaranda trees have bloomed later than normal this year, another sign of the late start to the warmer weather. Source: AAP / Bianca De Marchi

Professor Davies said that in southeast Queensland, including Brisbane, the peak of grass pollen season didn't tend to start until late summer and extended through to August.But the wet weather this year has seen the latest start to the pollen season in Melbourne since 2009, according to Dr Edwin Lampugnani, who is part of the Melbourne Pollen team. "It's a late start to the season; we had our first high day on the 31 October and our second high day was [Saturday] and this is unusual," he told Network 10. Dr Lampugnani said it's possible the season could even extend further into next year, although it's too early to tell at this stage.

"We'll need to see how the weather holds up over the next few weeks."

What impact did La Niña have?

Professor Davies said estimates suggest between 45 per cent and 67 per cent of people who get hay fever are allergic to grasses. Her research, documented on AusPollen Brisbane, has found grass pollen levels were almost four-and-a-half times higher last year - which was also a La Niña year - than the average for the previous five years.

While there are many complex factors at play, Professor Davies said the research carried out over four years and across four regions in Australia, picked up higher pollen loads during grass pollen seasons when there had been rainfall either before or during the season near pollen monitoring stations.

A woman walks across the road while carrying an umbrella in rainA woman walks across the road while carrying an umbrella in rain

The La Niña climate pattern brings wetter than normal conditions and this encourages the growth of grass. Source: AAP

It's thought that higher rainfall encourages the growth of grass, which then release pollen into the air once the rain stops. Temperature, daylight hours, wind and other factors can also influence the production of pollen.But not every person is allergic to grass pollen and depending on what their trigger is, some people could also experience symptoms during wet weather.Rain generally provides relief for hay fever sufferers as it tends to clean the air of pollen but rain can also release certain types of fungi into the air, which can create reactions in those who are allergic to fungi.

"It really comes down to what the individual person is sensitised to," Professor Davies said.

What can people do to relieve their hay fever symptoms?

Professor Davies said many hay fever sufferers will reach for tablets or spray to relieve their symptoms, but this will only work to a certain extent if they are experiencing troublesome or persistent symptoms. "It's much better to control underlying inflammation," she said.

She said this could be achieved through the use of intranasal corticosteroids - also known as steroid nasal sprays - that can be bought at chemists, and recommends speaking with a pharmacist.

A woman blowing her noseA woman blowing her nose

Australians with hay fever are being warned about extreme pollen levels. Source: Getty / Guido Mieth

Professor Davies said the sprays could help lessen the inflammatory process that drives the allergic inflammation and they work most effectively if they are used before someone's allergies get really bad.

"Treating and controlling the underlying inflammation with a preventer is better than just trying to get symptom relief," she said.

Treating and controlling the underlying inflammation with a preventer is better than just trying to get symptom relief.

- Professor Janet DaviesPeople can also stay indoors to avoid exposure to pollen on bad days or wear a good-quality mask while outside.Websites are also available that track pollen levels in , and .

What about thunderstorm asthma?

Professor Davies said if people ever experienced a tight chest or a cough associated with their hay fever and allergies, they should see a doctor because they could have an underlying risk or condition that's asthma or asthma-like."You really do need to get that under control," she said. Seeing a clinical immunologist can also help people determine what is triggering their reactions. Other allergens could include house dust mites, cat dander or fungal spores.

This is also important for understanding whether people are susceptible to thunderstorm asthma, which is a potentially dangerous condition that killed 10 people in Melbourne in 2016.

Thunderstorm asthma events are triggered by high grass pollen levels that can burst open and release tiny particles during a certain type of thunderstorm. It can affect those in Victoria, Canberra and surrounds, as well as those in central regions of NSW including Wagga Wagga, Dubbo, and as far north as Tamworth.Studies after the 2016 event found many people who did not have a diagnosis of asthma but were sensitive to grass pollen, experienced respiratory symptoms. Many were unaware of their sensitivity and 39 per cent of hospital presentations and admissions were people of Indian, Sri Lankan and south-east Asian heritage.People who would like more information on hay fever can go to the , as well as for advice about managing their symptoms.
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