Worst hayfever season in years


woman sneezing in field

Melbourne in particular is experiencing a very bad hayfever season, a leading expert says.

Pioneer of the pollen count, Dr Philip Taylor, a Research Fellow at Deakin University’s Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology within the School of Life and Environmental Sciences, says if Melburnians were feeling like this was the worst hay fever season they’d experienced for a while, then they would be right.

“Melbourne is full of grasses that cause allergic reactions in people, but it is the growth and spread of the pollen-containing grass by heavy rain and strong winds which causes the hay fever many of us are in the midst of now,” Dr Taylor says.

“Melbourne is the hayfever capital of the world thanks to large amounts of introduced plant species. What humans have done to the environment is the primary factor here,” he says.

“Then you add the city’s notoriously unstable weather to that and you get a double whammy. This year, May to October has been one of the wettest seasons on record so that is producing a lot of growth.

“While stronger winds emit more pollen into the air, wet weather can literally explode grass pollen, called pollen rupture. Each grass pollen grain can rupture into thousands of small airborne fragments.

“Although globally we don’t have the highest pollen counts, I suspect that we have more pollen rupture here than anywhere else in the world.”

Dr Taylor, who has dedicated his career to researching the causes of hayfever, helped set up Australia’s first modern pollen count station in Melbourne in the 1980s.

He then went on to set up several stations in North and South America, including at the world’s tallest research station, the ATTO tower in the central Amazon.

Dr Taylor says Melbourne’s native plants are low-allergenic, but the hayfever problem first began when people started farming agriculture, stripped the land of natives and introduced rye grass to feed cattle.

“Hybrid, fast growing grasses like these are now used everywhere,” he says.

“We’ve brought in European plants and subjected them to weather they did not evolve with.”

Dr Taylor said rye grass was the common denominator in 90 to 95% of hay fever cases.

He suggests people replace introduced species with natives.

Meanwhile, NSW ophthalmologist Dr Kerrie Meades from PersonalEYES has warned that common over-the-counter antihistamines and steroidal nasal sprays have side effects that can exacerbate allergy symptoms and even contribute to the cause of conjunctivitis.

Already, about 20% of allergy sufferers experience eye problems, and PersonalEYES estimates that dry eyes will affect more than 50% of Australians over their lifetime, and frequent use of antihistamines over the allergy season, which work by reducing the production of mucous and fluid in the body, could lead to dry eye.  

She says most consumers with allergies have only a basic understanding of the problem.

“We encourage people to buy antihistamines from a pharmacy over a supermarket or other channel so they can talk to a pharmacist to determine the best formulation for them and minimise side effects that may affect their daily routine,” she told the AJP.

She agreed that this year’s allergy season is particularly bad.

“Australia had one of the wettest Julys ever recorded and according to botanists, that means there will be more glass pollen being produced than previous years,” Dr Meares says.

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