Hay Fever is on the Increase in the UK

close-up of pollen on flower stamen

Spring is my favourite time of year apart from one thing – hay fever. The beginning of Spring is always marked by several days of suffering as I sneeze and wheeze, my eyes and throat itch and I generally feel like I’ve got a mild dose of flu. Eventually the eye drops, nasal spray and medication take effect and my symptoms settle down.

This year my symptoms began in the middle of February. I couldn’t believe I was experiencing hay fever symptoms in what felt like the middle of winter.  I’m sure in years past that my symptoms only really got going in May.

It turns out that I am definitely not the only person suffering from hay fever here in the UK.

Hay Fever is on the Increase in the UK

According to The British Society for Allergy and Clinical Immunology (BSACI) one in four UK adolescents has hay fever and GP consultations for this condition have increased fourfold over the last half century.

Writing in The Telegraph, Martin Beckford says:

According to the business information group Datamonitor, there were 12.5 million people over 20 in Britain in 2010 suffering from allergic rhinitis – a range of conditions including reactions to grass and tree pollens.  That number is expected to rise to 13.1 million by the end of the decade.

In fact, judging by a number of reports, I am part of a growing army of adults who have developed hay fever in later life. I can remember a time when I never used to suffer from hay fever at all.

Why are More People Suffering with Hay Fever?

There is no single explanation but probably a number of factors operating together. These include:

Grass Pollen and Climate Change

Pollen levels have risen sharply in the past few years and could be because of the wonderful mild Springs we’ve been experiencing in the UK. In other words, climate change, resulting in warmer weather.

The warmer climate has resulted in new species of exotic plants being introduced into Britain which release more pollen into the air. It also means trees and flowers are blooming for longer, extending the pollen season.

However, pollen levels in the mid-1970s were higher than today and hay fever levels lower, so there must be other reasons behind the present epidemic.


Air pollution from cars could be to blame as it has been linked to the parallel rise in asthma across Europe and North America.  But it can’t be be the only culprit as allergies like asthma tend to be higher in unspoilt areas than in the cities, where pollution levels are higher.

The ‘Hygiene Hypothesis’

The theory behind this is that allergies are on the rise because we are too clean!

Simply put, because of our use of disinfectant, anti-bacterial wipes and obsession with cleanliness, our immune systems are not getting the ‘priming’ they need to develop properly in infancy.

As a result, our bodies fail to distinguish between harmless dust or pollen and nasty bacteria that could kill, and mount an unneeded attack. This is known as an auto-immune reaction – when the body attacks itself. Vitamin D deficiency can also result in a weakened immune deficiency.

Children brought up on farms close to animals have some protection against allergy development.
However this theory does not account for parts of the world such as Latin America where infections from dirt are common yet allergy levels are still high.

Genetic Predisposition

Many people are thought to have a genetic predisposition to suffer hay fever, which may only be triggered later in life by a serious infection.

While there may not be a definite cause of hay fever and certainly not a cure, there is some comfort in the fact that if you are a hay fever sufferer you are certainly not alone.

Photo: Thanks to slgckgc on Flickr.com

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2 Responses to Hay Fever is on the Increase in the UK

  1. Thedoc Toriscrazy May 16, 2012 at 10:39 pm #

    Here in North America the allergy season also started early. I take an antihistamine every day but I still have ridiculous sneezing fits, and this year they started in late January!

    I will share one technique that I just discovered last year: the only thing that stops my sneezing immediately is nasal saline irrigation. The traditional version is called a Neti Pot. I prefer the squeeze bottle type, but the principal is the same. You let the salty water flow gently through each nostril in turn, washing away the allergens & irritants and soothing the inflamed nasal mucosa. You can buy a Neti pot or squeeze bottle at many pharmacies. It feels strange at first, but it works like nothing else.

    You can buy commercial mixes, but it is easy to make your own by mixing equal parts of non-iodized salt (e.g. pickling salt) and sodium bicarbonate (baking soda). Then mix 1 teaspoon of this with 8 ounces of tepid water – if you are very sensitive you will want to use distilled water to avoid the sting that tap water can cause. DO NOT USE UNSALTED TAP WATER, it will cause swelling of the nasal mucosa. DO NOT USE IODIZED SALT, it hurts like #*$@!.

    There is a reasonable entry on nasal irrigation in Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nasal_irrigation

    • Angie Macdonald May 17, 2012 at 2:59 pm #

      Very useful tips, thanks doc. I’ve heard of the Neti Pot before but never tried it. May have to give this a go in August, which is usually the worst month of the year for me when it comes to hayfever.

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