Managing hay fever

Hay fever is an allergic reaction to pollen and grasses. The symptoms include a blocked and itchy nose and sneezing. Taking time to plan the right treatment can help reduce the symptoms, and lead to a sneeze-free springtime.


What is hay fever?

In Australia, up to 21% of the population is affected by hay fever, most commonly between the ages of 25 and 44 years.

Hay fever is an allergic reaction to pollen and grasses which causes the lining of the nose to become inflamed. It is most common in the springtime when flowers are blooming and pollen is blown around by dry winds. Reactions will often occur until the season changes, and there is less pollen in the air.

Many people simply accept the symptoms of hay fever or don’t take care in selecting a treatment. However, hay fever treatments work best when they are tailored for you.

Reducing exposure to allergens like pollen, as well as taking appropriate medicine (either when necessary or as a regular preventative measure when appropriate) can really help.

Minimise exposure 

Try to find out what sets your symptoms off. These triggers are called your ‘allergens’. Allergens getting into your nose and eyes is what causes the irritation and symptoms.

  • Check out the pollen calendar to help you identify plants that may trigger hay fever and when they’re most likely to be flowering. You can find out what they look like too, so you can avoid locations where these plants might be growing.
  • Smear petroleum jelly (like Vaseline) inside your nose when you are outdoors. This helps trap pollen and stops it reaching the inner lining of your nose.
  • Stay indoors as much as possible in spring when the pollen count forecast is high, and on windy days or after thunderstorms.
  • Wear sunglasses and frequently splash your eyes with water. This will help protect your eyes from irritation and flush out any pollen.
  • Stay away from parks and gardens while lawns are being mowed. If you can’t avoid this, wearing a mask may help, if practical.
  • Shower after playing sport and other outdoor activities to rinse off any pollen you’ve been exposed to.
  • Use recirculated air in the car, especially when pollen levels are high, or keep the windows closed.

If you get symptoms all year round, you may be allergic to other substances, such as dust-mite, mould, or animal hair. Your doctor can help you find which allergens are causing the symptoms.

 Choose the best hay fever medicine for you

There are many medicines available to help with symptoms of hay fever. The more commonly used types are described below. (Except for some corticosteroids, most don’t need a prescription.) Always consult your doctor or pharmacist for advice on the best treatment for you.


Antihistamines help with rapid relief of hay fever symptoms like itchy eyes, sneezing and a runny nose. They are not good at relieving nasal congestion.

  • For mild hay fever, an antihistamine may be the only medicine you need.
  • All available antihistamines work equally well in relieving hay fever symptoms. Some antihistamines may make you drowsy, which may make it unsafe for you to drive or operate machinery. (Also see Breastfeeding and antihistamines )
  • Antihistamines can be taken as a tablet or as a nose spray. A nose spray has a faster onset of action than a tablet. If you are using a nose spray, make sure to follow the instructions so you spray correctly to achieve maximum benefit.


Corticosteroid sprays help prevent symptoms of hay fever, including a blocked nose (nasal congestion). These nose sprays can provide some relief within 3–7 hours, but the real benefit comes when used regularly according to instructions over a period of several days.

  • Corticosteroid spray is particularly useful for more severe hay fever.
  • Make sure you use the spray for as long as directed to ensure the long-term preventative effects.
  • Follow the instructions so you spray correctly to achieve maximum benefit.

Antihistamine and corticosteroid combination sprays offer the advantage of rapid relief of symptoms combined with longer term hay fever prevention.


Decongestants are another type of medicine that can provide rapid relief from a blocked or stuffy nose (nasal congestion) if antihistamines and corticosteroid sprays fail.

  • Decongestant medicines should not be given to young children (0–6 years of age). Only give these medicines to older children (6–12 years) if recommended by your health professional.
  • Decongestants can cause side effects like insomnia and irritability, and are not suitable if you have a heart condition or high blood pressure.
  • Decongestant sprays should not be used longer than a few days as they can actually lead to a blocked or stuffy nose (known as rebound congestion).


Saline solution (salt water) drops or spray may also be useful to wash away pollen in the nose and help with a blocked or stuffy nose.

You can use the Medicine Finder to check the active ingredients in hay fever medicines.

Breastfeeding and antihistamines

The packaging of some antihistamine medicines contains a warning about using these medicines while breastfeeding. If you are breastfeeding and need hay fever relief, always read the package instructions and talk with your health professional to make sure that an antihistamine is the most appropriate treatment option for you.

  • Antihistamines containing the active ingredient loratadine are usually the first choice for treating hay fever symptoms in women who are breastfeeding. This is because when used as directed only a small amount of loratadine passes into breast milk, and is unlikely to affect a breastfeeding baby.
  • Other non-sedating antihistamines (eg, fexofenadine, cetirizine) are also considered safe for short-term use by breastfeeding mothers.
  • Sedating antihistamines – a different class of antihistamines (eg, promethazine, trimeprazine) – should only be used if recommended specifically by your doctor. These medicines can pass into breast milk, and make your baby irritable and drowsy.

You can use the Medicine Finder to check the active ingredients in the available antihistamines.

Thunderstorm asthma

Pollen can trigger asthma as well as hay fever symptoms. Asthma occurs in 30% of people with hay fever, and hay fever occurs in 80% of people with allergic asthma.

Thunderstorms can trigger asthma in people allergic to pollen.

  • Strong winds that come with thunderstorms can distribute pollen grains over long distances.
  • Rain can cause grains of pollen in the air to explode into tiny pollen particles which can more easily move through the upper airways into the lungs, triggering asthma.

If your asthma is triggered by pollens, and is worse in the peak hay fever season, it is important that you have a current asthma action plan which includes how to treat asthma attacks, and a plan for preventing asthma by regularly using a preventative medicine (like a corticosteroid spray). Also, try to avoid being outside on high pollen days, particularly during windy days and thunderstorms.

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