This week, the UK saw its first heatwave of the year, with temperatures climbing to over 32C in some parts of England, prompting the Met Office to issue a level three heatwave alert for the south-east of the country.
The hot temperatures pushed pollen levels to high or very high across the UK as the release of grass pollen – which the vast majority of hay fever sufferers are allergic to – in full swing.
Hay fever is a pollen allergy, causing sufferers to react when it comes into contact with their mouth, nose, eyes and throat.
But the Met Office has said that, while grass pollen is nearing its peak right now, the numbers are not “especially noteworthy” this year compared to previous years.
So what is causing hay fever symptoms to feel so bad this year? Here’s everything we know about it:
Why do hay fever symptoms feel really bad right now?
Dr Luke Powles, Bupa Health Clinics’ clinical director, tells The Independent: “Over the last two years, Covid-19 restrictions have meant that we’ve spent more time indoors than we usually would.
“As a result, people may have been exposed to less pollen than usual, which could make your hay fever feel worse as we start spending more time outdoors. This is because we build up a certain level of immunity to pollen when we spend time outside, so without that exposure, you may be less immune than you usually would be to pollen.
“What’s more, hotter temperatures like we’re currently experiencing can worsen allergy symptoms as light produces more pollen.
“In our health clinics, we’ve seen a rise in people seeking help for hay fever symptoms as we’ve entered the spring/summer months, and our GPs have been able to provide support and advice for managing symptoms.”
Yolanda Clewlow, relationship manager for health and air quality at the Met Office, adds that pollen grains may be more “potent” this year due to the weather Britain has seen in the past couple of months, which could be exacerbating symptoms.
“The potency of these pollen grains could be more intense this year, and that comes down to the weather we’ve had in spring,” she said.
“A warm and wet May, coupled with a relatively warm spring, means there’s a chance that the pollen that has developed is particularly potent, even if the amounts aren’t dramatically different.”
Why does hay fever only affect some people?
According to Dr Powles, no one really knows why hay fever affects some people and not others. Whether or not you get hay fever may be down to genetics or the state of your gut health, he says.
“There’s also emerging research linking a less balanced intestinal microbiome (gut flora) with allergy related conditions such as hay fever,” he explains.
Other factors, such as stress, may also trigger hay fever symptoms.
“People may be more prone to hay fever if stressed, as your body releases hormones and other chemicals, including histamine, the powerful chemical that leads to allergy symptoms,” Dr Powles says. “While stress doesn’t actually cause allergies, it can worsen an allergic reaction by increasing the histamine in your bloodstream.
“With drinking alcohol, some studies have found that alcohol can cause or worsen the common symptoms of hay fever, like sneezing, itching, headaches and coughing. However, it’s not actually the alcohol itself that affects your allergies, but rather different substances found in alcoholic drinks, for example, histamine and sulphites, which cause the symptoms of hay fever.”
However, he notes that there is not enough evidence to suggest that alcohol is linked to making hay fever symptoms worse.
How can I treat my hay fever symptoms?
If you are suffering from hay fever, you can use medications to alleviate the symptoms.
Dr Sanjay Mehta, GP at The London General Practice, recommends non-sedating antihistamines, of which many are available over-the-counter, to treat common symptoms of hay fever.
“There are also nasal antihistamine sprays, which have a faster onset of action, however these may require a prescription from your GP,” he says.
But for more severe or persistent symptoms, he recommends a regular nasal steroid spray that “can be used as a substitute or addition to antihistamines”.
“These can also be purchased over-the-counter and act around six hours after the first dose, but the maximal effect may not be seen until after two weeks.”
Aside from medications, Dr Powles recommends taking a few measures to keep pollen out of your home.
He suggests shutting the doors and windows to keep it out, and to shower immediately after returning home from the outside.
“Pollen can cling to your hair and clothing, but a quick shower and regular wash of your clothes can help to keep the amount of pollen around you down, once you’re back inside. Make sure to dry your clothes indoors, where possible – as hanging them out to dry outdoors will cover them in pollen, again,” he says.
He also recommends covering your face to keep pollen away from it.
“All hay fever sufferers know that symptoms affect their eyes and nose. Wearing wraparound sunglasses can be helpful to keep pollen away, as well as using a barrier balm, like petroleum jelly, around your nostrils to make pollen contact more difficult.”