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Plants’ reproductive systems cause summer havoc

May 2018

Man sneezing
Hay fever can spoil a lovely summer’s day for many people

Hopefully winter colds are over...but now there is another reason for us to have watery eyes and to start sneezing...and that is hay fever.

Hay fever is caused by an allergy to pollen and it is incredibly common, probably affecting about one in five people in the UK. Men and women are equally affected.

The main symptoms are itchy or watery eyes, sneezing and a stuffed up nose. It occurs when your body goes into overdrive reacting against the high level of pollen.

Pollen is a small powder like grain made up of just a few cells. It is produced by flowering and cone bearing plants to help them reproduce and pollination is really the process of moving pollen from the male components of a plant to the female parts. This fertilizes the female reproductive cells so that a fruit or seed will develop.

Trees, grasses and weeds all produce tiny powder-like pollen but in the UK, in May, June and July grass pollens are the most common cause of hay fever.

If you suffer from hay fever, then it is worthwhile listening to the weather forecasts as weather does make a difference. On hot sunny days more pollen is usually released; on cold rainy days pollen does not travel around so easily in the air.

Interestingly many people avoid the countryside at this time of year fearful of getting hay fever. In fact, residents in towns can be at greater risk especially when there is pollution in the air. Pollen particles can combine with pollution to cause what is known as “super pollen” and these can be stickier, lasting longer in your airways and cause more severe symptoms. The air around our coasts, often laden with salt spray, is less likely to carry high levels of pollen and so can offer relief for hay fever sufferers.

In spring and early summer it can be very hard to avoid pollen but it makes sense to listen to the forecasts. Many weather reports include pollen counts at this time of year.

The Met Office issues official reports at this time of year, put together from detailed data from a number of organisations including the University of Worcester’s National Pollen and Aerobiological Unit combined with prevailing weather conditions. 

The Met Office have prepared an excellent easy to read map showing a constantly updated current pollen risk in every part of the country.

For even more detailed information, the National Pollen and Aerobiological Unit also produce reports, updated weekly, which include more facts about current pollen problems. For instance right now it seems early flowering grasses such as sweet vernal grass and meadow foxtail are starting to emit pollen.

If you are a hay fever sufferer, it really is difficult to avoid pollen completely at this time of year if you want to go outside at all. Obviously try to avoid any area where grass is being cut; this can throw large amounts of pollen into the air.  Pollen counts are usually higher in the early morning and late afternoon/early evening, so these could be times to stay indoors. There are some reports that indicate alcohol can increase sensitivity to pollen. Wraparound sunglasses can help prevent pollen getting into your eyes.

If you do suffer from hay fever, today there are lots of over the counter remedies available to help alleviate the symptoms.


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