Thunderstorms cause havoc for Canberra's hay fever sufferers

hayfever pollen count and index

Symptoms for hay fever sufferers usually ease up by summer, but recent thunderstorms and warm days have released fungal spores into Canberra's skies and it's left many allergy sufferers reaching for the tissue box.

Canberra had a record breaking hay fever season, beating the previous longest string of days with high and extreme pollen levels recorded in 2009 when there were 12 in a row.

Australian National University Professor Simon Haberle, one of the creators of a mobile app tracking forecasting pollen levels in Canberra since October 1, said overall Canberra had more "extreme" days where there are 100 or more pollen grains per cubic metre of air than ever before.

 hayfever pollen count canberra

Rye grass, the chief offender for allergy sufferers, was the most common pollen this season, but Paterson's curse pollen and in more recent weeks alternaria fungal spores were common occurrences in the Canberra air.

Professor Haberle said the recent wet weather followed by warm days had caused the fungal spores, "known to be quite a significant allergenic spore", to grow on grass stems.

"We are seeing in our counts that [the spores] have been quite high in the last week or two," he said.

"If people are feeling that they're still suffering hay fever it may not be from the grass it may be that it's from the alternaria."


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Hay fever survival guide: why you have it and how to treat it

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Janet Davies
Senior Research Fellow, Lung and Allergy Research Centre at The University of Queensland

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Connie Katelaris
Professor of Immunology and Allergy, UWAS & Head of Unit at South Western Sydney Local Health District

Three million Australian adults – 15% of the population – struggle through spring and summer with watery eyes, running nose, itchy throat and the hallmark hay fever symptom, sneezing.

When people with hay fever are exposed to particular pollens, their body mistakenly thinks this is a threat and triggers an allergic reaction. Inflammatory cells quickly release mediators such as histamine and that’s when the symptoms kick in.

In some people with hay fever, pollen allergens can trigger allergic symptoms in the lower airways as well as the nose, making it difficult to breathe. Under certain climatic conditions, such as after thunderstorms, pollen allergy can trigger asthma attacks, even in those without a history of asthma.

Hay fever can have a profound effect on our ability to function normally. The problem seems to be getting worse, or at least consumers are increasingly looking to alleviate their symptoms. In the ten years to 2010, the wholesale turnover of drugs to treat hay fever doubled.

Why you have it

Grass pollens are the major outdoor allergen trigger for hay fever in Australia. The timing and severity of the grass pollen season varies considerably between years and places, according to a recent analysis of 17 sites across Australia and New Zealand.

With a temperate climate, Melbourne usually has a short but intense grass pollen season, peaking late in spring (October to November). In Hobart, the grass pollen season peaks slightly later and the pollen load is low.

In contrast, Brisbane and Darwin have grass pollen seasons extending most of the year, with peaks in summer for Brisbane (January to March) and in the dry season in Darwin (May and June).

Adelaide, Sydney and Canberra have the temperate grass pollen season in spring but also have secondary peaks in summer. These late summer peaks in grass pollen are likely to be due to subtropical species.


grass canberraLevels of airborne pollen are influenced by weather and pollen production. Juan Ojeda/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA


Australia is yet to establish a standardised network to monitor the timing and magnitude of pollen exposure. Levels of airborne pollen are influenced by weather and other factors affecting pollen production. Predictions of airborne pollen in the absence of actual pollen counts are therefore inaccurate and unhelpful.

Beyond biology, location and flowering times, patients with hay fever in Australia also show region-dependent patterns of allergic responses to subtropical and temperate grass pollens. This can affect the diagnosis and treatment of grass pollen allergy in Australia and elsewhere.

How to manage your symptoms

A number of oral medications, nasal sprays and eye drops to treat hay fever are available over the counter at pharmacies. They work in different ways and have different pros and cons.

Antihistamines have been used to manage hay fever for decades and can be the first-line treatment for those with mild or occasional hay fever. When you can predict exposure to an allergen, such as when lawn mowing or going on a picnic in spring, taking an antihistamine before the exposure will provide better protection. They are also safe to use in the long term.

Opt for the newer, non-sedating varieties of antihistamines. The older drugs, which are still available, cause drowsiness and have been shown to contribute to workplace accidents in adults and impaired learning in children.

Antihistamines in general are good for itching, sneezing and watering symptoms, but do not relieve nasal blockage very well. Decongestant tablets and sprays can do this job, but they are limited to relieving symptoms only and do not resolve the underlying inflammation. 

Overuse of decongestant nasal sprays can lead to longer-term problems with nasal blockage, so limit their use to a few days only.

For people with moderate to severe and persistent symptoms of hay fever, the most effective medications are the intranasal steroid sprays. The older ones are now over-the-counter items and others are available by prescription.

These sprays have a “preventative” action and are most effective when use begins before the pollen season. If not, they will start relieving symptoms after a few days. The sprays must be used every day during the season to allow the best chance of success and to minimise side effects in the nose. They have also been shown to reduce allergic eye symptoms.

Some people worry that these are “steroid” sprays, but they differ greatly from traditional oral steroids. The modern topical steroid sprays are barely absorbed into the body and don’t have the much-feared muscle-building steroid side effects. A small percentage of people will experience some nasal bleeding, even if using the spray correctly; this is the most common side effect.

A number of people with hay fever will have troublesome eye symptoms, usually itching, watering and redness. If this isn’t relieved with topical nasal sprays, topical antihistamine eye drops can be very effective. Rinsing the eyes with an artificial tear solution of saline fluid can also be very soothing.

For people with severe and prolonged symptoms or who can’t gain adequate control with available medications, allergen-specific immunotherapy is available. This should be prescribed by an allergy specialist who determines the correct “vaccine” for the therapy. The immunotherapy program may extend over three to four years and is the only therapy that can provide long-lived benefit.

If you suffer from regular hay fever symptoms and medications don’t seem to be working, talk to your doctor. They can help guide you to the safest and most effective treatment option.


This article was originally published on The Conversation on 17th November 2014:

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Canberra sneezes through worst hay fever season in years.

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Canberra is on track to break a record of the longest string of days with high and extreme pollen levels and hay fever sufferers be warned - the worst could be yet to come.

Professor Simon Haberle, one of the creators of a mobile app which has been tracking forecasting pollen levels in Canberra since October 1, said so far this hay fever season had been unusually severe and November was the peak time for pollen.

"We had some quite strong days in October and they seem to be persisting," the head of the Australian National University's Department of Archaeology and Natural History said.

"We've had at least 10 days of high to extreme pollen in the atmosphere… and that's quite unusual."

Read more:


Image from Flickr user mcfarlandmo.


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Canberrans are a resilient lot but this year their mettle is being tested by a bumper season of grass pollen in the air. How bad is it really?

In an article published in The Conversation a month ago I suggested that Canberrans were in for a torrid time in the hay fever stakes. One of the reasons for this prediction was the observation that good winter rains followed by a mild to warm spring have produced conditions ideally suited to grass growth. In the previous decade the grassy paddocks that surround our city have at times been hit by drought and fires reducing grass growth and lowering the potential for flowering and pollen production.

But how is the grass pollen count tracking this season and what might we expect over the next few weeks? One way of assessing how the season is progressing is by looking at the cumulative total of grass pollen grains. That is, add each daily count to the sum of all the previous daily counts from October 1 – that’s the red line in today’s graph – and compare that line to the cumulative counts of other seasons. The brown line is our average grass season and the two dashed lines are our worst season in 2009, when the cumulative total of grass pollen grains of over 2500, and our mildest season in 2007, when the total was just over 500 grass pollen grains.

Despite only having 4 years of pollen season data for Canberra (2007-2009 and 2014), we can get a sense of the difference between this years grass pollen season and the previous records depicted in the graph. What stands out is the significant gap between the all previous measures of cumulative pollen and the 2014 line. This in part is related to an earlier start to the rise in pollen count (last week of October), compared to other years where this rise in the graph starts around the 1st November. The steepening of the 2014 graph also coincides with the onset of the current record stretch of HIGH/EXTREME pollen days, which may have contributed to a spike in asthma-related presentations to The Canberra Hospital on the 26th October.

Our predictions suggest that this trend is set to continue for at least another week or two in Canberra and we are on track for one of the longest and highest levels of grass pollen recorded (compare this to the Melbourne record where they are having a very mild season).

Will this pattern of longer and more extreme pollen counts continue in the future? At this stage its too early to tell, but one thing is certain, we will only know for sure if we can continue to measure the pollen content of our air into the future and be able to use this research to keep the population of Canberra informed about the changing state of the pollen count. 

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Forecasting the 2014 hay fever season

In this story in The Conversation, the Melbourne and Canberra pollen counters, Ed Newbigin and Simon Haberle, cast their eyes back to past grass pollen seasons and look forward to the coming season and what sufferers can expect. See how Canberra compares to other cities in Australia.

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