ACT News

Canberra sneezes through worst hay fever season in years

Hay fever sufferers be warned - the worst of Canberra's pollen levels  could be yet to come.
Hay fever sufferers be warned - the worst of Canberra's pollen levels could be yet to come. Photo: Marco Del Grande

Canberra is on track to break a record of the longest string of days with high and extreme pollen levels and hay fever sufferers be warned - the worst could be yet to come.

Professor Simon Haberle, one of the creators of a mobile app which has been tracking forecasting pollen levels in Canberra since October 1, said so far this hay fever season had been unusually severe and November was the peak time for pollen.

"We had some quite strong days in October and they seem to be persisting," the head of the Australian National University's Department of Archaeology and Natural History said.

"We've had at least 10 days of high to extreme pollen in the atmosphere… and that's quite unusual."

The string of high pollen days began on Sunday October 26 Professor Haberle said, coinciding with a spike in emergency department presentations for asthma at Canberra Hospital – where 15 people sought treatment compared to a more average day of just four.

Pollen counts in Canberra every day since have remained in the high and extreme categories.

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If, as predicted, Friday and Saturday are also high pollen days it will break the Canberra record - 12 days - since data was first collected five years ago, Professor Haberle said.

October's spike in asthma cases at the hospital was blamed on thunderstorms in Canberra. 

Professor Haberle said "thunderstorm asthma" was a well-known phenomenon in Melbourne and Wagga Wagga when weather conditions enhanced the activity of pollen in the atmosphere.

"It actually changes the character of the grass pollen in particular and the way it interacts in your airways," he said.

"It kind of explodes; it's like popping candy going off in your nose and eyes.

"It makes hay fever and asthma conditions even worse in a storm." 

Currently there is only anecdotal evidence of the phenomenon in Canberra, but Professor Haberle said researchers were closely monitoring pollen counts during thunderstorms and cross referencing the data with asthma admissions to Canberra's hospitals.

A wet winter and the lush grass it produced around Canberra, coupled with a dry spell and strong north-west winds has been blamed for the capital's high pollen days.

Professor Haberle said the researchers looked at weather patterns and forecasts and the pollen counts of previous days to predict pollen counts for up to a week ahead.

If predictions of a hotter, drier Canberra climate were correct, he said the hay fever season was expected to begin earlier and last longer.

So far the Canberra Pollen app has been downloaded more than 2000 times since it launched in September and more than 3000 people have rated their hay fever and asthma symptoms for the researchers as part of the "citizen science" project.

"On our extreme [pollen] days we had the indication that people we're really feeling the effects," Professor Haberle said.

"There's quite a strong correlation between grass pollen and people's symptoms."

Professor Haberle said the research would hopefully improve predictions of pollen in the atmosphere so the community could take steps to treat their symptoms on bad days.

He said the researchers hoped for government support to continue the service next season and collect data from all capital cities.

Although different people are sensitive to different types of pollen, Professor Haberle said rye grass was the chief offender and the focus of the pollen count project.

But he said the researchers were also monitoring other pollen types including European tree pollen and Patterson's Curse which could also affect sufferers.