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Allergy Today Advice Article

Keep off the grass

Allergy New Zealand allergy advisor Penny Jorgensen reports that it’s likely to be a bad year for grass
pollen so now’s the time to get prepared.
 
Young-woman-with-a-handkerchief-898219850 727x485-126Grass pollen is the most common cause of seasonal allergic rhinitis (aka hay fever) in New Zealand. It is also a major trigger for asthma. Early predictions are the pollen season this year will be a bad one, particularly for those allergic to grass.

Early October has been the traditional time grass pollination – and misery for those with the allergy – begins. However, with our changing climate we are seeing different patterns emerge. 

Most grasses in New Zealand are temperate species, but warmer temperatures in the north have seen the spread of subtropical grasses, potentially providing new triggers for grass-pollen allergy.

Subtropical regions in general tend to have higher daily pollen counts and pollen seasons that last longer. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to predict the impact of climate change on grass patterns in New Zealand because it’s 25 years since we’ve had any formal measurement of pollen here.

Weather conditions also affect the hazard level of grass pollen for those with allergies. Warmer, drier conditions enable grass to produce more pollen, and a warm spring could see grass pollinating earlier than usual. 

Current predictions from NIWA are for a high likelihood of El Niño conditions to become established in spring, with average or higher than average temperatures and normal or below normal rainfall in many parts of New Zealand. This could lead to higher intensity of pollen and a longer pollination period.

Grass pollen depends on wind for dispersal. Because it is light, grass pollen can blow a long way in windy conditions (in some reports, thousands of kilometres). El Niño conditions could mean stronger and more frequent winds from the west in summer.

Be prepared

Being prepared is the key to managing allergy to grass pollen. If you have moderate to severe allergic rhinitis (and/or asthma), it’s recommended that you see your GP to establish an allergic rhinitis and/or asthma management plan and get medications to treat your symptoms. 

These should include preventer medications such as an intranasal corticosteroid spray for allergic rhinitis. While it may take a few weeks for the spray to make a noticeable difference, if used regularly – and administered properly – it can be effective in reducing symptoms. For more information, download an ASCIA allergic rhinitis (hay fever) treatment plan.

If your symptoms persist even with regular medication, it may be worth investigating immunotherapy. However, this is a long-term treatment and may need to be started prior to the pollen season. It is recommended you see a specialist to determine whether this is right for you or your child.

While minimising exposure to grass pollen can also help reduce symptoms, it’s not always achievable. Remaining indoors with windows closed on windy days or in thunderstorms is a key strategy, as is avoiding activity outdoors where grass has not been regularly mown. 

Check the pollen forecast for your place at Metservice: click on any city or district on the map and scroll down the page to see the local pollen forecast. See also Allergy New Zealand's pollen calendar for more information.

For the thousands affected by grass and other pollen allergies, the lack of current information about pollen distribution and intensity is a major barrier to managing seasonal allergies effectively. 

We need to know about new species, such as subtropical grasses, and how grass growth and distribution has changed or is likely to be affected by climate change. Research is urgently needed, including pollen monitoring stations. 

References

Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA) 
'Tis the season: Pollen-related hay fever incidences to rise as warm, dry summer approaches NZ Herald, 26 August 2018 
Seasonal climate outlook September – November 2018 NIWA, 30 August 2018
Medek D, Beggs PJ, Erbas B, et al. Regional and seasonal variation in airborne grass pollen levels between cities of Australia and New Zealand. Aerobiologia, 2016 June;32(2):289-302.

Penny Jorgensen is the allergy advisor at Allergy New Zealand and has had many years’ experience in the health and disability sector.

October 2018