By Lauren Donley

    In our household, a couple of things appear in tandem at this time of year. Green shoots on the silver birch trees lining the back fence, followed by packets of hay fever tablets. If this sounds all too familiar, I’m sorry to inform you that pollen season has officially begun, with the Melbourne Pollen Count App kicking off its daily pollen counts from 1st October.

    What is hay fever?

    For starters, hay fever isn’t triggered by hay, and it doesn’t result in a fever. It’s caused by exposure to particles commonly found in our environment. Symptoms include a runny or blocked nose, sneezing, watering eyes, and general itching and irritation associated with all of the above. Around one in five Australians suffer from hay fever, also known as ‘allergic rhinitis’. 

    Hay fever is most notoriously caused by pollen – the powdery grains released by grasses, weeds and trees as part of the plant fertilisation life cycle.

    If you’re allergic to pollen, these kinky little grains trigger an immune response that is ultimately trying to clear pollen from your body. But in the process, this allergic reaction also floods your nose and sinuses with a naturally occurring chemical called histamine, which causes inflammation and itching.

    Why do symptoms peak in spring?

    In Victoria, large areas in the west and central-north of our great state are covered by pasture grasslands. And unfortunately, grass pollen is enemy number one for many people who experience hay fever. As the weather begins to heat up, warmer winds from the north and northwest carry large loads of flowering spring pollen right to our doorsteps in the western suburbs. A notable example is ryegrass, which has not only infiltrated rural pastures, but also suburban roadsides, lawns and nature strips. In short, nowhere is safe!

    On the upside though, there are now eight pollen ‘traps’ in operation across Victoria, helping to provide a better understanding of pollen levels and movement in real-time. This includes a trap at Waurn Ponds that received an upgrade in 2018 to help prepare the western suburbs for future thunderstorm asthma events.

    What is the forecast for this season?

    In the lead-up to hay fever season over the last three years it’s been relatively cool and rainy in Victoria due to consecutive ‘La Niña’ weather patterns. This additional moisture has helped flowering grasses to grow more abundantly, and for longer into the summer months. 

    If you suffer from hay fever, I probably don’t need to tell you that this has resulted in more severe and prolonged symptoms.

    But now onto the question you’re literally itching to ask – what about this year?

    Well, the good news is that you can breathe a little easier this spring! The experts behind Melbourne Pollen are predicting a comparatively milder hay fever season, as a warmer and drier ‘El Niño’ weather pattern emerges. Assuming that conditions remain dry through early October, the outlook is for a return to more average grass pollen levels. 

    At the time of print, Melbourne Pollen was expecting around 20 high or extreme grass pollen days for the season, starting from around mid-to-late October.

    Tips for managing symptoms

    If possible, stay indoors when the pollen count is high, particularly on windy days or after a thunderstorm. When you do need to venture outside, you may find it helpful to:

    • Avoid parks and other locations where you may encounter known hay fever triggers 
    • Turn on the air conditioning and keep windows closed while in your car
    • Wear sunglasses to protect your eyes
    • Shower and change your clothes after being outside
    • Dry your washing inside rather than on a clothesline
    • Visit your doctor or pharmacist to discuss suitable medication options. 
    Human Interest
    Human Interest
    Welcome to your regular column on the science of human beings…and being human. Brought to you by Lauren Donley, an unashamed science nerd who never misses an opportunity to share a story about bodily functions. Please note that this article is for general interest and is not a replacement for medical care. If you have any questions or concerns about your health, please contact your doctor.

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