women sneezing among flowering trees

Hay Fever in Melbourne – Dr Judith Kirwood

Melbourne’s hay fever season runs from 1 October to 31 December each year. It’s a period dreaded by the 4.5 million Australians who suffer from the condition.

Itchy ears and throat, a runny nose, sneezing and watery eyes can all impact your day. For an unfortunate few, the effects of hay fever are much more severe. Headaches, tiredness and difficulty concentrating can make springtime unbearable.

Grass pollen in the air is a significant cause of hay fever. Pollen levels are the highest in late spring and early summer. The good news is pollen counts are published daily during hay fever season, allowing people affected by the condition to take precautions.

In the following, we’ll look at:

What is hay fever?

Also known as allergic rhinitis, hay fever is an allergic reaction to airborne particles, particularly pollens. Rye grass pollens are often to blame in Melbourne.

These pollens get trapped in the tiny hairs inside your nose – an unremarkable event for most people. However, it’s an entirely different story if you have allergies.

Pollen can trigger an allergic reaction, making your immune system think it’s under attack. Your nasal cavity becomes inflamed and your body creates more mucus. This is in an attempt to flush out the irritating particles.

Unfortunately, the high levels of airborne pollen seem ruthless from late spring to early summer. It can feel like you’re getting hit from all directions with no end in sight.

field of wild flowers

How long does hay fever last?

Hay fever lasts as long as there are enough pollen and other allergens in the air to cause an allergic reaction. Once Melbourne’s hay fever season finishes, usually by January, most people find their symptoms disappear.

In saying this, many people experience episodes throughout the year. Dust mites, mould and household pets are also common irritants.

On a day to day basis, hay fever can last anywhere from a couple of hours to days. This duration is dependent on many factors. Such factors include your sensitivity to specific airborne allergens and how you minimise your exposure.

The common cold, which lasts for a few days to a week, is sometimes mistaken for hay fever. Symptoms such as aches and pains, fatigue and a mild fever will tell you it’s more likely a cold.

What’s the best cure for hay fever?

We can’t literally cure hay fever. Allergen immunotherapy is the best treatment for people subjected to severe symptoms or those who don’t respond to medications.

Also known as desensitisation, immunotherapy works by exposing your immune system to gradual concentrations of the offending allergen. Courses of treatment can run over several months, with treatment continuing for a few years.

The treatment involves a doctor administering allergen molecules through injections, tablets or drops placed under your tongue.

For the rest of us, there’s a range of over the counter medications to help reduce hay fever symptoms. These include:

  • steroid nasal sprays (e.g. Rhinocort Hayfever, Nasonex and Telnase)
  • antihistamines (e.g. Zyrtec and Claratyne)
  • eye drops (e.g. Visine-A and Naphcon-A), and
  • decongestants (e.g. Otrivin and Dimetapp).

Your GP can also advise what prescription medications may suit you.

Melbourne’s Pollen Count

Melbourne’s daily pollen count is active from October to January. Peak readings occur at the end of November.

graph of melbourne's high pollen days since 1991

Image courtesy of The University of Melbourne

Hay fever sufferers are urged to be aware of the daily pollen forecast and stay indoors during high pollen days. A high pollen day is when there are 50 or more pollen grains per square metre of air. Extreme days see more than 100 grains per square metre.

You can download the Melbourne Pollen Count mobile app here. The app also provides a forecast for thunderstorm asthma events.

Thunderstorm asthma

You may remember the shocking thunderstorm asthma event in late November 2016. Nine people died and many more were hospitalised. It was an unprecedented incident that has, thankfully, led to us taking preventative measures.

People with hay fever have an increased risk of asthma, including during a thunderstorm asthma event. Many victims of the 2016 event had no previous asthma symptoms.

storm clouds over flinders street station

A thunderstorm asthma event can happen when a high or extreme pollen day combines with a particular type of storm. A sudden change in humidity causes pollen particle to burst into tiny particles. This turbocharges the spread of pollens, magnifying their terrifying effects.

Melbourne is known globally as being a notorious locale for thunderstorm asthma. A system of forecasting epidemic weather events is now in place.

University of Melbourne’s School of BioSciences has an excellent FAQ you can refer to.

When to visit your GP

You probably know what to do on bad days if you’ve had hay fever for a while.

However, I recommend you get to your GP if any of the following happens:

  • You experience asthma symptoms such as a cough that won’t budge, breathlessness, wheezing or chest tightness.
  • Your hay fever symptoms last a week or more.
  • Your usual over the counter hay fever medications aren’t working.
  • You experience side effects from these medications.

Your GP can also refer you to a specialist if you’d like an allergy test. Some people find allergy testing useful in determining the exact trigger of their hay fever.

Dr Judith Kirwood is a senior GP at Doctors of South Melbourne. You can make an appointment with Judith, or any of our other GPs, by calling us on (03) 8579 6838 or booking online.

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