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Pollen allergy

5-minute read

What is pollen allergy?

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

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.

The amount of pollen in the air changes according to the season and 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.

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, do not 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.

What are the 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.

How is pollen allergy diagnosed?

If you think you have a pollen allergy, talk to your doctor. Allergy testing can detect what pollen or other substances you are allergic to.

How is pollen allergy treated?

If you have pollen allergy, antihistamines can control itching and sneezing in the long term. It may be best to choose an antihistamine that does not 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. Sprays should also not be taken for more than a few days as they can cause long-term problems in the nose, while tablets have stimulant effects and may cause shaking, anxiety and trouble sleeping.

If you have moderate or severe pollen allergy, talk to your doctor about an intranasal corticosteroid spray, which you take regularly (like asthma preventer medication) to prevent symptoms. There are different brands and strengths, so make sure you follow the instructions carefully. Some medications combine an antihistamine and intranasal corticosteroid nasal spray.

If pollen allergy is causing asthma symptoms, it is 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 is also possible to have allergen 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 until after midday on windy days and during the pollen season
  • avoiding going outside after thunderstorms, particularly when there are high pollen counts
  • protecting your eyes with sunglasses, showering when you arrive home, and rinsing your eyes with water
  • avoiding mowing the grass, or wear a mask if you have to go near mown grass
  • keeping windows closed at home and in the car, and using recirculating air conditioning in the car
  • not picnicking in parts or the country during the pollen season
  • removing any weeds that trigger your symptoms from around your house, especially from outside your bedroom window

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

When should I seek help?

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

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Last reviewed: May 2021

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