What is hay fever?

Woman with colourful dress and dog sitting in field

Warm weather signals sunny BBQs and countryside walks - but for hay fever sufferers, it's the season of runny noses and itchy eyes. 'Seasonal rhinitis' if you want to wow with your optics knowledge, or hay fever, as it's more widely known is a common allergic reaction that occurs during the early spring and summer months, as a reaction to pollen from grass, trees and weeds, but also house dust or mould. It's estimated that there are 10 million people living with hay fever in England - that's ⅕ of the country's population! Interestingly, those with a family history of allergies, particularly asthma or eczema, are more likely to develop hay fever.

But how come you notice hay fever symptoms months before everyone else starts complaining about them? And why do certain activities make your symptoms worse? Stay tuned, and we'll cover all things hay fever.

Yellow allergy season ahead sign

What causes hay fever?

Hay fever is caused when the body creates allergic antibodies to certain allergens like tree pollen, grass pollen and weed pollen. They all produce microscopic particles of pollen that's easily carried around by the wind. That ease is why pollen ends up being all around us in the summer months. Flowers are also an allergen, though their heavy, sticky pollen is a lot more difficult to move around, making them a much rarer allergen.

Paying attention to the time or frequency of your symptoms is a good way of figuring out what causes your hay fever. The most common allergen is grass pollen and those affected notice symptoms between May and July. Tree pollen season is between February and June, while weed pollen causes symptoms between June and September. Those that notice hay fever symptoms all year-round are usually affected by indoor allergens, such as house dust mites, pets or mould. Pets can very easily bring all kinds of pollen inside, so that might be worth bearing in mind when noting down the timing of your symptoms.

Hay fever symptoms

Though hay fever sufferers might experience varying levels of symptoms, depending on their allergen and habits.

The main symptoms of hay fever are:

  • sneezing and coughing
  • blocked or runny nose, leading to loss of smell
  • red, itchy or watery eyes
  • itchy throat, mouth, nose and ears
  • headache and/or earache
  • feeling tired

Those with asthma might also experience:

  • tightness in your chest
  • shortness of breath
  • wheezing and coughing
  • sleep apnoea
Woman applying hay fever eye drops in eye

Hay fever and contact lenses

Having dry, itchy eyes is one of the main symptoms of hay fever - but despite what many people think, you can and should just continue wearing your contact lenses.

Whether you're a clean freak or a once-in-a-blue-moon spring cleaner, hay fever season makes thorough cleaning of your contact lenses a must. So, for you monthly wearers, make sure you stock up on your go-to solution - leaving no room for pollen, dust or any allergens to build up. But if you wanted an even easier, more practical way to tackle hay fever season, switching to daily disposable contact lenses is the way to go.

Eye drops are also a total must. Not only do they soothe irritated or dry eyes caused by contact lenses, but they also massively reduce the effects of hay fever. Giving your eyes an eyewash every now and then would also help a lot with the symptoms of hay fever.

COVID-19 or hay fever?

The most common hay fever symptoms could be similar to those of the coronavirus, which might be confusing for some of us. Here are the main differences between COVID-19 and hay fever:

Factor Hay fever COVID-19
Timing Begins the moment you're exposed to an allergen. Starts 1 to 20 days after you're exposed to the virus.
Duration Lasts for several weeks, as long as you're exposed to the allergen. Lasts 7 to 20 days.
Symptoms Runny nose with thin, clear discharge and itchiness in throat, ears, eyes. A dry, persistent cough. There have not been reports of a blocked nose.
Fever Doesn't cause a fever. A high temperature and headache.

Hay fever treatment

At the moment, there isn't a cure for hay fever, and it's impossible to prevent. But there are multiple treatment options for hay fever, including hay fever tablets (antihistamines), eye drops, providing relief from dry, itchy eyes, nose sprays and corticosteroids (steroids), which help to reduce inflammation and swelling. If you find that your symptoms continue despite using over-the-counter medications, speak to your GP, as you might need prescription medication.

However, you can ease hay fever symptoms in practical ways too:

  • stay indoors as much as you can, as it is the most effective way to keep hay fever at bay!
  • try to keep windows and doors shut, when the pollen count is high
  • put Vaseline around your nostrils to trap pollen out
  • shower and change your clothes after you've been outside, to wash off pollen particles
  • give your coat a good shake every time you get back inside
  • hoover and dust as regularly as you can

Here are some things you should avoid doing:

  • don't do any gardening, especially cutting grass without wearing a protective mask
  • don't spend too long outside, especially on days when the pollen count is high
  • don't keep flowers in the house
  • don't dry your clothes outside, as they could catch pollen
  • don't let pets into the house if possible, as they can bring pollen in