The pollen bomb is coming – here are five safe and effective ways to survive it

Pollen
Pollen counts are set to peak in the coming days - Stone RF/Getty

In bad news for hay fever sufferers, the Met office has warned of super-high pollen counts peaking over the next five days, peaking today and remaining at high levels until Thursday June 27. A week of sneezing and red eyes awaits.

A “pollen bomb” isn’t an official term used by allergists, but it’s increasingly used informally to refer to a spike in the pollen count, which occurs when already high levels of pollen coincide with warm, dry weather.

“High pollen counts are caused by a combination of things, so they’re quite difficult to predict,” says Adam Fox, a professor in paediatric allergy. “At this time of year, hay fever is predominantly caused by pollen from Timothy grass, which isn’t the grass on your lawn, but a species that looks a little like wheat that you might see in parks and on the side of the road. That produces a lot of pollen, which gets blown around in little clouds.”

The symptoms of hay fever – sneezing, itchy eyes, a runny nose and a headache – are caused by the body producing allergic antibodies when it comes into contact with pollen. When a “pollen bomb” arrives, the pollen count increases, so these symptoms are more severe.

People who live in both urban and rural areas can be equally affected, says Prof Fox, as air pollution can exacerbate the effect. “Although pollen counts might be higher in rural areas, in urban areas there can be a synergistic effect with pollution, which can make hay fever worse,” he says.

Recent evidence suggests hay fever is getting more prevalent and severe. Almost half of British adults now suffer hay-fever symptoms, according to Allergy UK, and 37 per cent had developed them for the first time in the past five years.

This isn’t just an anecdotal phenomenon. Recent research conducted by the UK’s chief pollen forecaster, Dr Beverley Adams-Groom, found that increasing spring temperatures and a changing climate are making the pollen season, which can typically last from late March to September, even longer. Because of this, the two main types of allergenic pollen – tree and grass pollen – also increasingly overlap, causing an unwelcome double whammy for hay fever sufferers.

Five ways to beat the bomb

1. Steroid sprays and antihistamines

“The conventional treatments for hay fever are steroid nasal sprays and finding the right antihistamines,” says Prof Fox. Antihistamines, which block the body’s allergic response, are the first-line treatment. They are most effective if they are taken in advance of the pollen season. Allergy UK recommends taking a non-sedating antihistamine from two weeks before your hay fever symptoms usually start. Nasal sprays can reduce inflammation and ease the sniffles and stuffy nose.

2. Cut down your exposure

Better still is to reduce your exposure to pollen before symptoms take hold. “Before we get to drugs, there are things that you can do to reduce the amount of pollen that you’re in contact with,” says Dr Jeremy Harris, a GP at the Private GP Group. “The first thing to do is shut your window at night, and consider wearing wrap-around sunglasses to reduce the amount of pollen that floats into your eyes.”

3. Natural remedies such as saltwater nasal sprays

There may be lifestyle changes or natural remedies that help ease mild to moderate symptoms, most of which regular hay-fever sufferers will be very well acquainted with. The idea that eating local honey can improve hay fever is nothing more than an “urban myth”, says Prof Fox, but in his experience “saltwater nasal sprays can be helpful”. They are widely available over-the-counter at pharmacies.

Girl pollen allergy
Symptoms of hay fever include sneezing, itchy eyes, a runny nose and a headache - Getty/E+

4. Hoover up and keep washing

Allergy UK recommends monitoring pollen levels (the Met Office app is useful for this) and taking extra measures when the pollen count is high, such as showering, washing hair and changing clothes when you arrive home, avoiding cutting grass or walking on grass, and drying clothes indoors rather than outside on a washing line, as they can pick up pollen. The NHS also advises vacuuming regularly and dusting with a damp cloth, and staying indoors wherever possible when pollen counts are high.

5. Dust off the face mask

No one wants to hark back to Covid times, but mask-wearing has been proven to reduce allergy symptoms in about 40 per cent of severe sufferers, according to recent research. If you’re really desperate, dig out a surgical mask.

If you live overseas: consider desensitisation treatment

Many people find the above are enough to keep hay-fever symptoms at bay, but some people suffer more severely. “Even with antihistamines, some people find they still have symptoms, in which case there’s a value to “desensitisation” or immunotherapy treatment, which deliberately exposes you to pollen, and while it isn’t a cure it can make symptoms markedly better,” says Prof Fox.

It is commonly doled out on the continent, via tablet or injection, but isn’t always available in the UK. “One of the frustrations is there’s not much access to this for patients here, as there are very limited specialist allergy services on the NHS,” he adds. But if your hay-fever symptoms are having a severe impact on your quality of life, make a GP appointment to ask about further treatment options.