Pollen, hay fever and lung conditions

Allergies to tree, grass or weed pollen cause hay fever, which can affect lung conditions like asthma and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Get to know more about pollen season, so you can reduce the risk of your hay fever triggering an asthma attack or a flare-up of your lung condition symptoms. 

Symptoms of hay fever

Symptoms of hay fever include: 

  • sneezing a lot
  • coughing (caused by postnasal drip, which is the feeling that mucus is dripping slowly down your throat)   
  • a runny or blocked nose
  • itchy, red or watery eyes
  • itchy throat, nose, mouth and ears
  • loss of smell
  • headache
  • earache
  • feeling tired.

Some symptoms of hay fever are similar to the symptoms of a cold. However, cold symptoms normally go away after 1-2 weeks, while hay fever can last for weeks, or even months.  

If you have asthma or COPD and hay fever triggers your symptoms, you might also notice:

  • being short of breath
  • a tight chest
  • wheezing 
  • coughing.

The different types of pollen

There are different types of pollen and you can be allergic to more than one kind of pollen across the year.

  • Tree pollen is a common hay fever trigger.  It’s the first type of pollen released every year, and levels are usually highest from late March to mid-May. The most common tree pollen allergy is birch tree pollen, which affects about 20% of everyone with hay fever. 
  • Grass pollen is the most common hay fever trigger and affects about 95% of people who have hay fever. Grass pollen is often highest between mid-May and July. There’s evidence that when grass pollen levels are high, there is an increase in the number of people with asthma needing hospital treatment for their symptoms. There is also some evidence that suggests a link between high levels of grass pollen and increased numbers of COPD hospital admissions. 
  • Hay fever can also be triggered by weed pollen, which is usually highest from the end of June until September. 

Prepare for pollen season – know your pollen triggers

Being prepared during hay fever season can help reduce your risk of an asthma attack or a flare-up of your COPD symptoms.

Different trees and plants release pollen at different times, but changeable weather in the UK makes it hard to predict exactly when this will happen. If you get hay fever symptoms all year round, you could have non-allergic rhinitis or an allergy to something else.

If you get hay fever and take antihistamines, start taking them two to four weeks before your symptoms normally start. Taking them early means that when pollen starts being released, the medication has already built up in your bloodstream, so you may be less likely to react.

If you use a steroid nasal spray, it can take up to two weeks to start working, so start using it before your symptoms usually begin.

Read our information on hay fever treatments.

Use our pollen calendar

To work out which pollen sets off your hay fever, note the days and weeks when your symptoms are bad. Use our pollen calendar to see which pollen could be your trigger, and when it’s likely to be released.

Download pollen calendar

When to see your GP

When to see your GP

If you have hay fever, it’s likely that it’s affecting your asthma or COPD if you:

  • feel wheezy
  • feel breathless
  • have a tight feeling in your chest
  • are coughing more than usual 
  • have asthma and are needing to use your reliever inhaler (usually blue) three times a week or more.  

If your symptoms are getting worse, it’s important to start treatment or review your treatment quickly to reduce the risk of a potentially life-threatening asthma attack or a COPD flare-up. Ask your GP for an urgent, same day or next day appointment.

If you don’t think you have hay fever, but your symptoms are getting worse, you should still see your GP urgently.

Hay fever, air pollution and the weather

How air pollution can make your hay fever worse

Lots of people find their hay fever gets worse when air pollution levels are high.  

This is because pollution molecules stick to pollen grains, meaning they are in the air for longer and are harder to get out of your airways.

There’s also evidence that suggests people who live in cities are more likely to be allergic to pollen, due to higher levels of pollution.  

Air pollution levels are closely linked to the weather, with hot weather often leading to poor air quality. This is due to the extreme heat and lack of wind.

How the weather can make your hay fever worse

Thunderstorms can cause your symptoms to get worse if you’ve got asthma  because they smash pollen into smaller particles that can go deeper into your lungs.    This is known as ‘thunderstorm asthma’.

Rain, wind, and hot weather can also affect pollen levels too.

The Met Office has more information about how the weather can affect pollen.

How to reduce your risk

These steps will reduce your risk of your symptoms getting worse, or an asthma attack or flare-up as a result of hay fever.

  1. Take any preventer or maintenance treatment every day, as prescribed. This will help reduce the risk of your lungs reacting to pollen. If you have asthma, this is especially important, as the asthma preventer inhalers contain a low dose of steroid, which reduces inflammation that can be triggered by pollen.
  2. Always carry your reliever inhaler, (usually blue) with you. You might also call this your rescue inhaler. These inhalers quickly relax the muscles in your airways and ease your asthma or COPD symptoms on the spot.
  3. Try to stay away from the trigger, if possible. Take extra care if you’re out and about when it’s warm, humid and windy,  or if the pollen count or the level of pollution is high.   Check the weather on your TV or online or use a weather app on your phone to get weather and pollen alerts.
  4. Take hay fever medicines. They help reduce the allergic reaction that could be making your symptoms worse. Read more about hay fever treatments
  5. Call your GP surgery or 111. They can help if your lung condition symptoms get worse. 

Get support

Call our Helpline for support with your condition. Get advice on your medicines, symptoms or travelling with a lung condition, or just call us to say hello.

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