Hay fever sufferers are facing a miserable spring as climate change wreaks havoc on tree pollen production. Forecasters are predicting this could be one of the worst seasons on record for birch pollen – the main allergen causing runny noses now.
Very high levels were expected across England on Monday and in the east of the country and Wales on Tuesday, according to the Met Office.
Rising global temperatures are resulting in hay fever seasons that start earlier and last longer.
Dr Beverley Adams-Groom, a senior palynologist at the University of Worcester, told the Daily Express: “Climate change is affecting the trees more seriously, and not so much grass or weed pollen.
“A couple of our pollen monitoring stations – our York site, for example – have already in just one week of the [tree pollen] season experienced half of what we would expect the average to be.
“We’ve still got three or four weeks to go yet so it looks like it will be overall a severe year, although possibly not the most severe year we have seen.”
Hay fever is caused by an allergic reaction to pollen, a fine powder produced by certain plants.
Around 95 percent of sufferers are sensitive to grass pollen and a quarter to tree pollen such as birch. The tree pollen season falls earlier, typically between late March and mid-May.
The University of Worcester has been producing pollen forecasts with the Met Office since 1995.
Climate change is affecting different species of plants in different ways, Dr Adams-Groom said.
Warmer weather at two key times of year has led to an increase in severity of birch pollen. She explained: “We are seeing warmer Junes and a resulting increase in the pollen production of birch trees.
“We’re also seeing more favourable weather in April when the pollen is ready to be released – better temperatures or dry, sunny weather to allow the pollen to be dispersed.”
However, while oak trees started flowering earlier towards the start of April, there has not been an increase in severity as their pollen production months fall later in the summer.
The grass pollen season usually begins at the end of May and peaks in mid-June and it is too early to predict this year’s trend.
Dr Adams-Groom said there was no indication that the grass pollen season was becoming more severe of lasting longer, but the first “high day” is occurring earlier.
She added: “For pretty much the whole of the UK, we are now at the peak of the season for the main tree pollen – that’s birch and ash.
“So any days that we have where the temperature is in the low teens or above, with dry weather, we’re going to see high to very high counts.
“Certainly this week, when we’ve got dry weather forecast, we would expect that to be a peak week.”
Dr Adams-Groom said the best advice for hay fever sufferers was to check forecasts and be prepared.
“People who start taking their medication a week or so in advance of the season will avoid that first severe hay fever attack,” she said.
“Once you have that first attack, you become super sensitised and then you’re much more likely to have a miserable season.”
Margaret Kelman, the acting head of clinical services at Allergy UK, said studies had shown climate change was “potentially contributing to more intense pollen seasons”.
She added: “Warmer temperatures have been found to alter the vegetation patterns of plants and speed up the growing process.
“This means plants start to grow and pollinate earlier and continue for longer than previously seen.
“These longer pollen seasons result in a sustained increase in circulating airborne pollen particles, which means longer and higher exposure to pollen which will all affect hay fever sufferers and ultimately lead to worsening symptoms.”
Symptoms such as sneezing, a runny nose, or itchy eyes are triggered when pollen comes into contact with the mouth, nose, eyes and throat.
Ms Kelman said people should not just put up with symptoms. She added: “Most people with hay fever will have symptoms that can be managed by taking a daily non-sedating antihistamine.
“These are available in tablet and syrup form, and you can speak to a pharmacist who can advise you on the best choice for your individual needs.”
Claire Nevinson, a superintendent pharmacist at Boots, said applying a petroleum jelly like Vaseline around your nose can help create a barrier to trap pollen.
She added: “If you are suffering with hay fever symptoms it’s important to limit your exposure to pollen by keeping windows and doors shut as much as possible.
“Shower and change your clothes after you have been outside to wash pollen off and wear wraparound sunglasses to stop pollen getting into your eyes.
“There is a range of hay fever relief products available – from tablets to nasal sprays – you can always speak to your pharmacist to find which products may be suitable for you.”
Charity Asthma + Lung UK has also issued an alert for people with lung conditions, which can be exacerbated by high pollen levels.
Respiratory nurse Naomi Watt said: “If pollen is causing your lung condition to get worse, it’s important you get help so you can get on top of symptoms before they get more serious.
“There are simple steps you can take, which include making sure you’re taking any preventer or maintenance treatment every day, as prescribed.”
You can find more information about allergies here.