Hay fever is an allergic reaction to pollen. When these tiny particles come into contact with the cells that line your mouth, nose, eyes and throat, they irritate them and trigger an allergic reaction.
When you have an allergic reaction, your body overreacts to something that it perceives as a threat. In hay fever, the allergen (the substance that you are allergic to) is pollen. Your immune system (the body’s natural defence system) starts to respond as if it were being attacked by a virus.
Your immune system will release a number of chemicals designed to prevent the spread of what it wrongly perceives as an infection.
These chemicals then cause the symptoms of the allergic reaction, such as watering eyes and a runny nose.
It’s unclear what causes the immune system to do this but there are several risk factors that can increase your risk of hay fever.
having asthma or another allergic condition such as eczema (an allergic skin condition)
having a family history of hay fever
being exposed to tobacco smoke during early childhood
What are you allergic to?
In England, most people with hay fever are allergic to grass pollen. However, trees and weeds can also cause hay fever. Research suggests that pollution, such as cigarette smoke or car exhaust fumes, can make allergies worse.
There are around 30 types of pollen that could cause your hay fever. The pollen that causes hay fever could come from sources including:
grass : 90% of people in Britain with hay fever are allergic to grass pollen
trees : about 25% of people in Britain with hay fever are allergic to pollen from trees, including oak, ash, cedar and birch (people with an allergy to birch often also experience an allergic reaction to apples, peaches, plums and cherries as these types of fruit contain a similar protein to birch pollen)
weeds : such as mugwort and ragweed
It’s possible to be allergic to more than one type of pollen
When is there most pollen?
Different trees and plants produce their pollen at different times of the year. Depending on which pollen you are allergic to, you may experience your hay fever symptoms at different times.
From January to April, pollens from trees are the most common cause of hay fever.
From May to August, pollens from grass are the most common cause of hay fever.
During the autumn, hay fever may be caused by weeds such as nettles and docks, late flowering plants and mould and fungal spores.
The effect of the weather
The amount of sunshine, rain or wind affects how much pollen plants release and how much the pollen is spread around. On humid and windy days, pollen spreads easily. On rainy days, pollen may be cleared from the air, causing pollen levels to fall.
During their pollen season, plants release pollen early in the morning. As the day gets warmer and more flowers open, pollen levels rise. On sunny days, the pollen count is highest in the early evening.