Hayfever is an allergic reaction to pollen that affects 1 in 5 people at some point. Pollen is a powder released by plants and you can be allergic to tree pollen (spring), grass pollen (end of spring/ summer), weed pollen (autumn), plant and tree moulds or a mixture of these.
The pollen particles irritate the lining of the nose, eyes, skin and throat, and may aggravate asthma. When you are having an allergic reaction the body’s immune system responds to pollen as though it is an invader like a virus and produces inflammatory chemicals that cause the symptoms.
Pollen counts can vary in response to weather and many weather phone apps will help you by looking at pollen counts (and air pollution levels which can aggravate sufferers) so you can increase support when they are high.
Symptoms of hayfever include:
- Runny or blocked nose, this can lead to a loss of smell
- Itchy mouth, throat or ears
- Itchy, red or watery eyes
- Cough (postnasal drip)
- Facial pain from the sinuses
- Tiredness / fatigue
- A worsening of asthma: tight chest, shortness of breath, cough (asthma can be very serious, seek medical advice if displaying these symptoms).
There are IgE Allergy Inhalant blood tests available including home kits which you can do to test what may be aggravating you. Allergens include:
Moulds: Mould allergies may be mistaken for hayfever. The most common mould sensitivities are Alternaria alternata. An allergy causing fungus that lives on plants and in the soil that can cause nose, skin or asthma symptoms (more likely in children) anywhere between spring and autumn – counts are highest when it is dry. It has also been found on food, textiles, in sewage, cardboard, paper, and electrical cables (1).
Aspergillus is another species of mould allergy that may be mistaken for hayfever. This commonly creates persistent nose, sinus and asthma symptoms, and mould spores can even live in the nose or sinuses. If symptoms are persisting all year round, mould allergy should be considered, particularly as aspergillus is associated with dampness or mould in buldings. It may also be more likely in those with nasal polyps (2).
If you are concerned about mould reactions, one of the most comprehensive tests is from Genova diagnostics.
Grasses: Grass allergy is the most common cause of hayfever which usually comes on between May and July. The most common grass allergy is to Timothy grass, however allergy to Cocksfoot, Bermuda grass, Johnson grass, June (Kentucky Blue) grass, Meadow Fescue, Meadow grass and Rye are also common.
There is a much higher likelihood of food allergies in those with grass pollen allergy (3).
Tree pollens: Tree pollen is the second most common cause of hayfever and usually starts much earlier than grass pollen allergy – February to June. The most common allergy is usually to birch pollen but can also include hazel, cypress, oak, maple or sycamore allergies.
1/3 of patients with birch pollen have asthma and half have food allergies to rosaceae fruits eaten raw (4) – most commonly peach, apple and apricot (but may also include pear, plum and strawberry).
Weeds: Weed pollen allergy is usually later in the summer and most commonly to ragweed and mugwort – June to September, other weeds that are common allergens include plantain and rough pigweed.
Dust mites: There is a strong crossover between dust mite allergy and hayfever. If you test positive for dust allergy then hoovering, removing bedroom carpets and dust bedding can help improve your symptoms.
Dr Jess says: Most of us long for spring and summer, but for some of my patients this can be a miserable time of year as they start with itchy eyes, nose, throat, blocked nose, skin problems and in some cases asthma. Whether it starts early or late can give you a clue as to what is irritating you.
I have homeopathic remedies for symptoms on my desk from early spring and give them out daily to my patients who queue up for more the next year. I am also a big fan of diffusers and essential oils for relieving symptoms (see recipes below). There are many excellent traditional Western and Chinese herbs for hayfever which a good herbalist can prescribe based on your symptoms, and functional medicine practitioners can work on the root cause by supporting your immune system…The remedies I find most helpful in my clinic are below.
1. Homeopathy my top 6 remedies:
- Mixed pollens and grasses 30c – In homeopathic theory we can use remedies made from the substance that aggravates you which have been put through the process of homeopathic dilution (and therefore are no longer harmful) in order to desensitise you. It is usually suggested to take this remedy once daily throughout the hayfever season, alongside specific remedies below.
- Allium cepa – frequent sneezing, watery discharge from the nose (which can irritate the skin around), eyes water profusely (but usually not irritated).
- Arsenicum album – burning discharge from the nose. Frequent, relentless sneezing with tickling in nose. Anxious and restless, panicky. Asthmatic, chest symptoms. Worse around midnight.
- Euphrasia officials – Eye symptoms worst. Sneezing with profuse irritating tears, red inflamed eyes. Bland discharge from the nose that doesn’t irritate (opposite of Allium cepa). Worse in open air and wind.
- Natrum muriaticum – Watery discharge from eyes and nose, profuse from nose, uncomfortable sensation of worm in nose. Tears burn the corners of the eyes. Headache on waking. Violent sneezing, cough with tickling throat. Loss of smell and taste. May crave salt. Worse in the sun, better at the seaside.
- Nux vomica – Paroxysms of sneezing, violent headaches. Irritable and hot. Itching extends down throat. Nose blocked. Strong irritation and heat of eyes, nose and face. Sensitive to cold.
- Sabadilla – Nose symptoms worst. Violent sneezing, profuse watery discharge from the nose. Nose is stuffed up and breathing can be difficult. Snoring, itching in the nose, nose bleeds, sinus pain in face. Can be very sensitive to the smell of garlic.
It is always worth consulting a qualified homeopath to get the most appropriate prescription for your symptoms, however selecting the remedy above with the best fit can be helpful for short term relief. Take the remedy in a 6c or 30c, up to three times daily. If not sure which is best, a useful general combination to try for common hayfever symptoms is Euphrasia / Allium cepa / Sabadilla which is available from Helios the homeopathic pharmacy in a dispenser. I also like this combination in 6X potency up to five times daily as needed for symptoms.
2. Essential Oils in a Diffuser
My passion for essential oils has only increased with time and experience using them, I love them and have seen a lot of benefits – both for my patients and for my children. A plug in diffuser is an excellent investment especially with children for colds, hayfever and asthma symptoms. It is one of the best ways to use essential oils.
There is an excellent selection including great eco and sustainable options from Madebyzen (we have had one of these for 5 years and are still using it non stop). Absolute Aromas is a great supplier of essential oils including many organic high quality oils, quality is important with essential oils as there are many dilute and poorly produced alternatives.
- Blue Tansy – Tanacetum annuum – traditionally used for irritability & agitation, anxiety, nervous tension over-sensitivities and allergies, restlessness, itchy red skin rashes (hives), headaches, all symptoms worse with stress. It is traditionally used as a respiratory relaxant as a bronchodilator considered good for asthmatic conditions, anti-inflammatory and anti-allergic. It has low toxicity (reasonably safe, seek advice if pregnant). Its antihistamine action likely comes from the sesquiterpenes and lactones that it contains.
- German Chamomile – Very similar in traditional use to Blue Tansy above. Also traditionally a strong anti-inflammatory, good anti-allergic and antihistamine (5). Generally considered safe.
- Helichrysum – Traditionally good for anxiety, suppressed anger, anxiety, depression, sluggish energy and burnout (6), chronic headaches, allergies, skin conditions. People who need this may feel better with activity. Considered traditionally to be antiallergic, good for hayfever, anti-inflammatory, good for rhinitis (nose), otitis (ears), asthma and urticaria (hives). High in the anti-inflammatory and anti-histamine sequiterpene curcumene.
- Siberian fir – For people with chest symptoms, traditionally used to aid breathing and as a bronchial relaxer for asthma. Traditionally good for apathy, low self-confidence, chronic cough and emotional burnout. It has been shown to have anti-fungal properties so may be beneficial in mould allergy (7).
Use singly or in combination in a diffuser 1-2 drops in the day of each. At night Dr Jess has found a stronger dose of 6 drops of Lavender (avoid in pregnancy), 6 drops of Eucalyptus (avoid E. globulus <2yrs consider E. radiata – gentler), 3 drops Tea Tree and 2 drops of camphor in a large, fully filled diffuser overnight is helpful to aid sleep, clear a stuffed up nose and aid breathing (she also uses this combination for colds).
3. Use a barrier balm
A simple, mechanical way to trap pollen particles and prevent them getting to sensitive tissues like the inside of the nose, eyes and mouth is to put a layer of a hayfever barrier balm around the eyes, nose and mouth several times a day. An independent survey by Allergy UK saw 80% of sufferers found an improvement using Haymax barrier balm (8). Haymax does an excellent video to show how to apply it here but the key is regular application when going out.
4. Top 7 herbs for hayfever
Start 6 weeks before the hayfever season starts. Seek advice from a qualified medical herbalist if you have any medical conditions, are on medication or are pregnant or breast-feeding.
- Boswellia serrata – Ayurvedic herbalists consider boswellia as a herbal anti-inflammatory and often use it for arthritis. However Boswelia has been shown to reduce inflammatory chemicals such as histamine and leukotriene (involved in hayfever) and in a clinical trial of asthma patients 70% of patients improved (9). It is considered to be a very safe herb and can be taken as a tablet.
- Butterbur (Petasitites hybridus) – the most researched herb for hayfever which may work by blocking leukotrienes (some of the inflammatory chemicals produced in hayfever) and is high in anti-inflammatory petasins. Trials show it can improve hayfever symptoms, quality of life and reduce inflammatory markers (10)(11)(12) in just 5 days. Clinical trials have also found it to be a safe and effective treatment for migraine (13) and asthma (14). There is some concern over Butterbur and pyrrolizadine alkaloids, so select a PA-free version.
- Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) – a traditionally used herb for hayfever. The flowers can be used in a tea or tincture, or the berries can be used traditionally to boost the immune system. See our elderberry syrup recipe here and learn about herbs to support your immune system here.
- Echinacea sp. – Traditionally an immune enhancing herb, echinacea has also been shown to be anti-inflammatory and act as a bronchodilator (open the airways) reducing inflammatory chemicals in the airways (15). There may be some crossover between ragweed allergy and Echinacea so use cautiously if allergic (16).
- Euphrasia officinalis – a clinical trial (17) has shown the benefit of Euphrasia eye drops for conjunctivitis (eye inflammation), making this a good option for those suffering from eye symptoms with their hayfever. Euphrasia eye drops are safe, well tolerated and widely available. Euphrasia can also be taken as a tincture traditionally to help all upper respiratory symptoms of hayfever.
- Guduchi (Tinosporia cordifolia) – an Ayurvedic herb considered to be traditionally immune boosting, anti-inflammatory and good for hayfever and skin conditions it is also known as the ‘Divine nectar’ and an immensely healing herb. Early research seems to confirm its anti-inflammatory and immune supporting properties and it shows promise for supporting diabetes (18).
- Nettle (Uritica dioica) – Nettle leaf can be drunk as a tea and is considered very safe. Traditionally used for urticaria (hives) and burning conditions. 2 randomised controlled studies of between 70 and 90 people showed an improvement in symptoms and inflammatory markers of hayfever when taking nettle (19)(20).
- Chinese Herbs – the most commonly prescribed traditional Chinese herbs for hayfever are Cang Er Zi (xanthium fruit), Huang Qi (Astragalus), Bai Zhi (angelica root), Fang Feng (ledebouriella root), Bo He (peppermint), Xin Yi Hua (magnolia flower) and Huang Qin (Scutellaria baicalensis) which has shown anti-allergic properties (21). Chinese herbs are best prescribed by a qualified practitioner and are usually given in combination depending on your symptoms.
5. Support your immune system
- Probiotics – supporting the gut microbiome (gut bacteria and microorganisms) is one of the best ways to improve the health of our immune system as over 70% of the immune system is in our gut. Fermented foods and probiotics like kefir are an excellent way to improve the health of our microbiome and therefore help our immunity. A double blind trial of 173 hayfever sufferers showed taking daily probiotics improved symptoms and quality of life during hayfever season (22).
- Vitamin D – vitamin D plays a large role in immune function and levels are shown to be low in many allergic diseases including allergic rhinitis (23). Take a good quality vitamin D supplement if you suspect your levels are low and read more about Vitamin D here.
- Zinc – studies show that as zinc levels decrease, allergic reaction markers in the blood increase (24). Zinc is critical for the immune system that is likely beneficial for hayfever. Read more about zinc here.
- Vitamin C – there is a limited amount of evidence for the benefit of vitamin C, however a small study of patients with allergic rhinitis showed they had better lung function after 2g doses of Vitamin C (25). As a powerful antioxidant and immune supporting vitamin, eat vegetables and fruit rich in vitamin C to support your hayfever.
- MSM – Methylsulfonylmethane, a natural compound in food, including vegetables, meat and dairy has been shown to help hayfever symptoms and energy levels in a study of 55 people taking 2.6g for 30 days (26).
- Quercetin – a natural antioxidant found in broccoli, apples and berries, herbs and high quality tea which can also be taken as a supplement. It has known anti-inflammatory and anti-clergy properties and can inhibit histamine and inflammatory chemicals that create the symptoms of hayfever (27). A study of a supplement combination of quercetin, butterbur and vitamin D showed a 70% improvement in hayfever when taken through the season (28). Other quercetin related plant flavonoids have been shown to reduce ear symptoms of tree pollen allergy (29).
- Consider excluding wheat – A study showed 60% of children with grass pollen hayfever also had a sensitisation to wheat on blood test (30). It may then be beneficial to exclude wheat from the diet for 4 weeks and see if there is an improvement in symptoms. Read more about the issues with wheat here.