The sniffling noses and streaming eyes that accompany summer for many hay fever sufferers are currently in full force, with the pollen count high across many areas of the UK, as it has been for some weeks. But is it worse than normal this year? Well, the answer might not be as simple as you’d think.
Scientifically speaking, the amount of pollen in the air at the moment is fairly average by UK standards, but some people with hay fever have been reporting some significant symptoms in the last few weeks. The reason for this is less likely to be down to the amounts of pollen in the air, but more the sudden increase in pollen in the air due to a Spring and early Summer of contrasting weather conditions.
Speaking to the WeatherSnap podcast, Yolanda Clewlow, Relationship Manager for Health and Air Quality Services at the Met Office, said: “The main difference this year compared to other years is the sudden, almost overnight, increase in pollen levels, especially grass pollen.
“In terms of pollen grains in the atmosphere, we’ve gone from single figures and low double figures per cubic metre to hundreds per cubic metre in a very short amount of time. I think that’s what people are maybe registering this year – that dramatic, rapid increase in levels.”
The reason behind that increase in levels can be largely pinned down to the weather patterns at the leading in to Summer.
A cool and significantly wet May – the fifth wettest on record for the UK – was followed by a marked shift to drier and warm conditions in early June, leading to pollen almost instantly being ready to be released.
Yolanda said, “Overnight the pollen that was poised, ready to be released, was able to be blown off plants in to dry, warm air. Anyone with an allergy to pollen, and grass pollen in particular, was suddenly exposed to very high levels.”
Changes to the pollen season are also increasingly likely due to the impacts of climate change. The evidence shows that the season could be more likely to start earlier in the UK, and the changing climate in the UK may also see new plant species become established, bringing with them more pollen to release in to the atmosphere.
“Longer term, we are seeing changes to the pollen season,” said Yolanda.
“The evidence is showing that this season is extending and the earlier starts in particular are likely due to climate change.
“As our climate warms, we will see more species of plants become embedded and take off in this country. Some are already here in very small pockets, but they will start to take hold and the season will get more intense. So this is significant for people who are already suffering.”
In addition, recent research around pollen has been around the phenomenon of ‘thunderstorm asthma’ which was experienced in Australia in 2016 as storms swept across the south of the country. During the period of intense storms, Australia experienced a spike in hospital admissions and ambulance call outs due to people experiencing respiratory symptoms and difficulty breathing.
Yolanda added: “With Public Health England and others, we are working closely to try and identify periods when there are increased asthma admissions during periods when there is storm activity coupled with high pollen levels. It could be lightning… bursting pollen grains open and releasing the smaller, very allergenic grains within and they get can get much deeper inside the lungs. There’s a lot of different things we’re looking at.”
Hear more from Yolanda, including the ongoing research into the potential impacts of thunderstorms on pollen, on the WeatherSnap podcast, with Clare Nasir.
Find out more about how the weather affects hay fever.
Find out when hay fever season is for the UK.
View the latest pollen forecast for the UK.