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Hay fever symptoms and treatment

In partnership with Dr Hamish Black

What is hay fever and what can we do about it?

Young man with a striped white and navy shirt grabbing some hay fever tablets to help ease his allergies
Young man with a striped white and navy shirt grabbing some hay fever tablets to help ease his allergies

Itchy eyes. Runny nose. Constant sneezing. Sound familiar? As anyone who suffers from hay fever can attest, this affliction is the pits, and as the weather warms up, allergy sufferers may feel a sense of impending doom. But what is hay fever? And, more importantly, what can we do about it?

Consider nib your health partner when it comes to looking after your body and mind. So, we spoke to nib group medical advisor Dr Hamish Black about this very common condition.

What is hay fever?

Hay fever is “usually a seasonal disorder associated with sneezing, itching and congestion”, says Hamish. Known clinically as allergic rhinitis, it is an allergic reaction that occurs when you come into contact with environmental allergens, such as pollens, mould, dust mites and animal dander (tiny flecks of skin shed by animals such as cats and dogs).

For many of us – one in five Australians, in fact – when our eyes or nose come into contact with these allergens, our bodies trigger an immune response, releasing a chemical called histamine, which causes swelling and inflammation of the inner lining of the nose.

While many people associate hay fever with spring – when there’s an abundance of airborne grass pollens – allergic rhinitis can occur at any time of the year and can be incredibly debilitating, interrupting sleep and hindering concentration, learning and daily function.

Identifying hay fever symptoms

Despite its name, fever is not a symptom of this condition (nor is it caused by hay). The most common hay fever symptoms include:

  • runny or itchy nose

  • nasal congestion

  • constant throat clearing

  • frequent sneezing

  • itchy, watery eyes

  • snoring

Less-common symptoms may include:

  • disturbed sleep

  • daytime tiredness

  • poor concentration

  • frequent headaches

  • frequent sore throats and a hoarse voice

  • facial pain or pressure

  • a reduced sense of smell

  • frequent sinus infections (in adults)

  • frequent ear infections (in children)

If you’re suffering from these symptoms, a trip to your GP can help you find out whether allergic rhinitis is to blame. Along with noting your symptoms, your medical professional may examine your nose and eyes, ask to see how you breathe through your nose or examine your nostrils and throat for signs of hay fever.

“A test is not usually necessary as it is normally diagnosable clinically,” explains Hamish, however: “where there is doubt about the diagnosis, blood or skin tests or imaging may be helpful in making the correct diagnosis.”

Brunette young woman wearing a grey shirt blowing her nose at her home office desk

Ways to treat hay fever

Luckily, hay fever is usually fairly simple to treat at home. Identifying which specific allergens are causing a reaction is an important step in managing hay fever so you can minimise your exposure to them where possible. For people whose allergies flare up with the seasons, this could mean checking the day’s pollen count before heading outdoors (and staying inside where possible when the count is high or if it’s particularly windy), wearing sunglasses, showering and rinsing eyes with water after you’ve been outside.

If you can’t avoid your triggers (because who wants to sit inside all spring and summer!?), medication can help. “It is appropriate for older children and adults to try either oral non-sedating antihistamines or intranasal glucocorticoids to see if this settles symptoms,” suggests Hamish.

Antihistamines block the body's response to histamine, which makes our noses run and our eyes and skin itch, swell and go red, and can be used to help reduce symptoms and taken when needed.

Intranasal corticosteroid sprays (INCS) reduce inflammation in the nasal lining and need to be used regularly as directed to be effective. “This type of nasal spray is the most effective treatment and should be used daily for chronic symptoms,” adds Hamish.

Of course, before you consider medication or for any advice, diagnosis and treatment, it’s important to visit your GP or healthcare professional.

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner. 

Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black

In partnership with

Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black has been a medical practitioner for more than 25 years. In addition to his role as nib group medical advisor, he still spends two days a week practising as a GP. He has spent many years working in emergency departments and in rural Australia, including a stint with the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Hamish also loves karaoke and dancing (though not that well at either, he says!), with Play that Funky Music by Wild Cherry being his karaoke favourite.