What is hay fever?

Hay fever is an extremely common allergic condition which is also known as seasonal allergic rhinitis. It affects between 10 per cent and 30 per cent of all adults and as many as 40 per cent of children in the UK. People are more likely to suffer from hay fever if they have a family history of asthma, allergies or eczema. In essence, hay fever is an allergic reaction to pollen.


Hay fever in infants & children

Hay fever is most common in children, especially teenagers, due to the changes they experience during puberty. Symptoms tend to reduce in severity with age, but can continue into adulthood. It rarely develops in children before the age of 2 due to the amount of time they spend indoors. It’s more common in children older than 4 years. They experience similar symptoms, however due to the irritation children experience, they can interfere with sleep and daily activities at school.

Meadow of wild flowers

Causes & symptoms

Hay fever is caused when the immune system reacts to pollen, dust mites, or tiny amounts of skin or saliva from animals. When this happens, the body produces a specific antibody called immunoglobulin E (IgE) in some people. This makes the body believe that the pollen, or equivalent, is harmful and IgE triggers substances from the eyes, nose and throat. One of these substances is histamine, which causes hay fever symptoms.

There are a variety of hay fever symptoms which include sneezing, watery itchy eyes, a runny nose, headache, lethargy and an itchy mouth throat. Symptoms are commonly experienced between the months of March and September when the pollen count is high.

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Symptoms are very much dependant on the time of year and where in the country people live. Living in south and central UK may mean people experience hay fever earlier in the year that lasts longer. Symptoms can be worse on hot, dry days when the wind carries the pollen. The hay fever season changes year to year in length and severity, so it’s also important for people to know what they are allergic to. Tree pollen is more common in early spring (February to June), grass pollen is more common later in spring and summer (May to July) and pollen weed occurs into the summer (June to September).

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How to manage symptoms

Currently there is no cure for hay fever, but symptoms can be alleviated with treatment. The most common first line treatment is over-the-counter medication including tablets, nasal sprays or eye drops from a pharmacist. There are numerous options to choose from and it’s about finding the right combination for you. Taking them two or three weeks before the season begins is often recommended and medication is often required daily.

When you should speak to your doctor

Speaking to your GP is important if you suffer other medical conditions, such as asthma, which may be making your hay fever worse. Also, if symptoms are severe or last all year round, advice from your GP is important. Over-the-counter medicines are usually effective, but if not, you should make an appointment to see your GP for stronger treatment options available on prescription.

Enjoyed this? For more on allergies…

9 natural approaches to help you through allergy season
10 foods to support your seasonal allergies
Allergies in children

Emer Delaney BSc (Hons), RD has an honours degree in human nutrition and dietetics from the University of Ulster. She has worked as a dietitian in some of London's top teaching hospitals and is currently based in Chelsea.

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our terms and conditions for more information.


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