Climate change could make hay fever worse, scientists claim

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Wednesday 3rd August 2022

Scientists claim that climate change could make hay fever symptoms worse in the UK. After weeks of warm weather, many people across the country have reported symptoms of hay fever, such as an itchy nose, sneezing and watery eyes. Hay fever is common, but is it becoming more prevalent and why are some people experiencing more severe symptoms?

Dr Beverley Adams-Groom, a leading pollen forecaster, suggested that some people may be developing symptoms for the first time or feeling like their hay fever is worse than usual due to climate change. Pollutants from traffic can impact the respiratory system, which lowers the threshold at which some individuals start to experience symptoms. This means that more people are affected by hay fever. This year, grass pollen growth was also good as a result of warm, wet weather in May followed by relatively high temperatures in June. 

In addition to exposure to pollution, climate change could also be a driving factor in increasing the prevalence and severity of hay fever due to changes in weather conditions. Dr Adams-Groom has been involved in research projects, which explore 25 years of seasonal trends. Her research indicates that the amount of birch pollen produced annually has increased and oak tree pollen seasons are getting earlier. This is due to higher temperatures in the spring months. Although there is no evidence to show that grass pollen seasons are getting longer or more intense, the first high pollen count day is getting earlier.

The Met Office agreed with the study, suggesting that changes in climatic conditions could mean that traditional UK hay fever seasons could get longer and pollen concentrations increase. 

Megan McWhinney, a teacher from Lancashire, is one of many people who have experienced more severe hay fever symptoms than normal this spring/summer. Megan has suffered from hay fever for seven years but said that her symptoms were the worse she’s ever had in July. She usually starts to notice signs in February and takes antihistamines until October, but this year, she didn’t get symptoms until the end of June when they came on suddenly. For the last month, she has had to contend with a sore throat, yellow, glassy eyes and itchy ears. At some points, she said, she hasn’t wanted to leave her home.

Laura Stone, 42, from Southend-on-Sea, is another hay fever sufferer who claims that her symptoms have become more severe this year. She said that sometimes, her hay fever “feels like death” and has completely wiped her out. She has been exhausted in the afternoons and feeling drained all the time. She developed a cough and struggled with her sinuses and a runny, itchy nose and feared she may have caught Covid, but every test came back negative. Even taking antihistamines has provided little in the way in relief. 

Dr Sophie Farooque, a hay fever expert, explained that some people in the UK may feel like they’ve had worse symptoms this year due to a “double hit” of tree and grass pollen. As the different pollen seasons lengthen, they can overlap, which means that people who are allergic to both types are breathing in tree and grass pollen at the same time, leading to more intense symptoms. The changing seasons also mean that those who may have previously had a gap between bouts of symptoms are now experiencing prolonged periods of hay fever. 

Dr Farooque, author of Understanding Allergy, also indicated that the potency of pollen may be increasing due to air pollution and the amount of carbon dioxide in the air. If CO2 emission double, research suggests that the severity of hay fever symptoms in future seasons could increase by up to 60%.

Immunologist, Prof Sheena Cruickshank, said that more people are developing symptoms of hay fever, as well as those who already have hay fever experiencing worse symptoms. A survey of 7,000 people showed that 37% had experienced hay fever for the first time in five years. 

There is no cure for hay fever, but most cases can be managed effectively with antihistamine tablets and self-help techniques, such as reducing pollen exposure, closing windows and wearing sunglasses. In more severe cases, GPs can recommend steroid and immunotherapy treatments.