Hay fever - what it is and how you can reduce the symptoms

Written by Nick Thompson
Clinically reviewed internally by Christina McAfee
Medically reviewed by Oonagh Dowds (MPharm)
Medically reviewed on 23/6/2023

It’s British Summertime, and most of the population is heading outside to relax in the sun, but unfortunately for some, it isn’t quite as relaxing as they’d hoped. Itchy noses, watery eyes and constant sneezing wreak havoc on 49% of the UK's population every summer.

Read on and discover exactly what hay fever is, why the pollen forecast is important, how long hay fever can last, and what you can do to reduce the frustrating symptoms.

Flower in the foreground and lady sneezing in the background

Let’s start with the basics, what is hay fever?

In simple terms, hay fever is an allergic reaction to pollen. Your immune system sees the pollen as a threat, triggers a response, chemicals, including histamine, get released, and your body goes into fight mode. The common symptoms that you see most people experience come from the histamine causing your blood vessels to expand.

The severity can range from a mild inconvenience to being unable to go to work, with 1 in 5 sufferers taking time off due to their allergy. Although there isn’t a known cure, there are medications aimed at reducing the symptoms and steps you can take to avoid allergens and reduce exposure.  

What is the pollen count / forecast?

You may have heard about the pollen count in passing. Next to the weather forecast, it can be a brilliant guide for those suffering from hay fever.

The pollen count measures how much pollen there is in the air (scientifically measured in grains per cubic meter over the previous 24 hours). That's then combined with the predicted weather to create the pollen forecast. The final result is what we see, a map showing low, moderate, high, or very high pollen counts across the country.

You can take a look at today's pollen forecast here

Can you get hay fever at any age or develop it later in life?

The simple answer is yes. You can get hay fever at any age, and some people develop it later in life. If you've started sniffling and sneezing over spring or summer but never had hay fever before, it might be worth consulting your pharmacist first, or speaking to a GP if needed.

How long does hay fever last?

The duration of hay fever symptoms can vary from person to person. For some, they're a temporary annoyance that last for a few weeks, but for others, they can continue throughout the spring and summer months.

Hay fever occurs at different times of the year in response to different pollens. Tree pollen is released early to late spring, grass pollen from late spring to early summer, and weed pollen from early spring to late autumn.

Eventually, the pollen count settles down, but if you are a hay fever sufferer, it's always worth checking the pollen forecast just to be prepared.

Hay fever causing havoc?

Speak to a GP today as part of your Simplyhealth Plan, with video and phone appointments that fit your schedule

What can you do about hay fever symptoms?

Before taking medication for the first time, or if you're pregnant, breastfeeding, or have other medical conditions, you should always consult your GP.


Over-the-counter medications are available to target the symptoms of hay fever. We've listed some of those below:

  1. Oral antihistamines. Effective for runny nose and sneezing, but less effective for nasal congestion. They work by blocking histamine, a chemical that sets off the allergy chain reaction in your body. Ultimately, histamines cause the sneezing and itchy eyes associated with hay fever. All antihistamines have the potential to cause drowsiness. Care should be taken.

  2. For a stuffy or runny nose, nasal sprays could be an option. They provide direct action in your irritated nasal passages, reducing inflammation and giving you some relief from the symptoms, particularly congestion. There are three types of nasal spray to look out for:
    • Steroid nasal sprays – Their maximal effect is after 2 weeks. If you know when your symptoms usually begin, it’s best to start a week or two before this.
    • Decongestant nasal sprays – Only to be used for a maximum of 7 days. They work by reducing swelling of blood vessels in nose.
    • Barrier nasal sprays – Drug free, can be used during pregnancy, and they don’t cause drowsiness. They work by forming a barrier to prevent allergens getting into the nose and causing symptoms.

      Another option is saline nasal rinses, which can be used to rinse nasal passages of pollens before they cause symptoms.
  3. Finally, if your eyes are suffering the most, eye drops may be able to help. They'll soothe itchy, watery eyes, and work by stopping the release of histamine.

Always read the labels and instructions before taking any medication. If you're unsure which one is right for you, have a chat with your pharmacist in the first instance or book an appointment with your GP.

Lifestyle changes

There are other ways to manage hay fever symptoms away from medication. We asked our clinical team to provide some tips for sufferers this summer:

  1. Put Vaseline around your nostrils to trap pollen

  2. Wear wraparound sunglasses to stop pollen from getting into your eyes

  3. Shower and change your clothes after you’ve been outside to wash pollen off

  4. Dry your clothes indoors instead of on the line outside

  5. If the pollen forecast is high, stay indoors whenever possible

  6. Keep windows and doors shut as much as possible

  7. Vacuum regularly and dust with a damp cloth

  8. Buy a pollen filter for the air vents in your car and a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter

  9. Try to stay at home and avoid contact with other people if you have a high temperature or you don’t feel well enough to do your normal activities

If you’re suffering from hay fever symptoms, we hope this article provides some help. Remember, have a chat with a pharmacist or GP to see what options there are for you. A GP might be able to prescribe treatments that aren’t available over the counter.


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