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Pollen allergy

4-minute read

Pollen is a common trigger for hay fever and asthma symptoms in Australia. If you are allergic to pollen, minimising your exposure will help keep you well when pollen counts are at their highest.

What is pollen?

Pollen is fine grains released from grasses, weeds and trees that fertilise other plants. It's carried by insects, birds or the wind and can travel a very long way from the plant where it originated.

The amount of pollen in the air changes according to the season and to where you live. For example, pollen counts can be very high in October and November in Melbourne and Hobart, and in the spring and summer in Adelaide, Sydney and Canberra. Brisbane and Darwin have high pollen for most of the year.

What is a pollen allergy?

Some people are allergic to pollen, meaning the pollen makes their immune system react. If they are exposed to pollen, they can get itchy and inflamed eyes and nasal passages (called hay fever, or allergic rhinitis). The pollen can also enter the lungs and trigger asthma symptoms.

Allergic rhinitis and asthma are very common in Australia, and people with pollen allergy may experience symptoms for many months. This will depend on where they live and the types of pollen they are allergic to. Many people, however, won’t realise that pollen is the cause of their symptoms.

Sometimes pollen can trigger asthma in people who have never had it before, especially after a thunderstorm. This is known as thunderstorm asthma.

Symptoms of pollen allergy

Pollen allergy can cause:

  • runny, itchy, blocked nose
  • sneezing
  • irritable, itchy, watery and red eyes
  • itchy ears, throat and roof of the mouth

Allergic rhinitis caused by pollen allergy can lead to sinus infections and poor sleep. It also makes asthma harder to control.

Treatments for pollen allergy

If you have pollen allergy, antihistamines can control itching and sneezing in the long term. It may be best to choose an antihistamine that doesn't make you drowsy. You can also use saltwater nasal spray to relieve your symptoms.

Decongestant tablets or sprays may relieve a blocked nose but they will not treat the inflammation caused by pollen allergy. They should also not be taken long-term as, if used for more than 5-7 days, they can cause a 'rebound effect' when stopped. If you have moderate or severe pollen allergy, talk to your doctor about an intranasal steroid spray, which can be used to prevent symptoms.

If pollen allergy is causing asthma symptoms, it's very important to keep your asthma under control. Your doctor may give you anti-inflammatory asthma medicine to take, especially during times of the year when your symptoms get worse.

It's also possible to have immunotherapy to 'switch off' your allergy to different pollens.

Living with a pollen allergy

If you have a pollen allergy, the best thing you can do is to avoid being exposed to pollen. You can do this by:

  • staying indoors on windy days
  • avoiding going outside after thunderstorms
  • protecting your eyes with sunglasses
  • avoiding mowing the grass, or wearing a mask if you have to go near mown grass
  • keeping windows closed at home and in the car
  • removing any weeds that trigger your symptoms from around your house

If you are exposed to pollen, rinse your eyes with water and take an antihistamine.

When to seek help

If you have allergic rhinitis or asthma symptoms during spring and summer, or if your hay fever medicines don't seem be working, talk to your doctor about whether pollen allergy could be the cause.

More information

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Last reviewed: May 2019

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