Thunderstorms cause havoc for Canberra's hay fever sufferers

Thunderstorms cause havoc for Canberra's hay fever sufferers

Symptoms for hay fever sufferers usually ease up by summer, but recent thunderstorms and warm days have released fungal spores into Canberra's skies and it's left many allergy sufferers reaching for the tissue box.

Canberra had a record breaking hay fever season, beating the previous longest string of days with high and extreme pollen levels recorded in 2009 when there were 12 in a row.

Canberra had a record breaking hay fever season in 2014.

Canberra had a record breaking hay fever season in 2014.

Australian National University Professor Simon Haberle, one of the creators of a mobile app tracking forecasting pollen levels in Canberra since October 1, said overall Canberra had more "extreme" days where there are 100 or more pollen grains per cubic metre of air than ever before.

Rye grass, the chief offender for allergy sufferers, was the most common pollen this season, but Paterson's curse pollen and in more recent weeks alternaria fungal spores were common occurrences in the Canberra air.

Graph showing grass pollen counts for Canberra 2014 compared to previous years.

Graph showing grass pollen counts for Canberra 2014 compared to previous years.

Professor Haberle said the recent wet weather followed by warm days had caused the fungal spores, "known to be quite a significant allergenic spore", to grow on grass stems.

"We are seeing in our counts that [the spores] have been quite high in the last week or two," he said.

"If people are feeling that they're still suffering hay fever it may not be from the grass it may be that it's from the alternaria."

Professor Haberle said towards mid-December pollen counts generally reduce, but Canberra appeared to be developing a secondary rise in grass pollen during February over recent years due to warmer temperatures and climate change.

"It's something that's experienced in the warmer climate of Sydney," he said.

"We're starting to see that as a phenomenon in the Canberra region … the warmer climate grasslands are becoming more important in Canberra."

"If that trend continues than there's the potential that the hay fever season will be even further extended."

Professor Haberle predicts Canberra's pollen counts will stay in the low to moderate range before the February rise.

The stretch of extreme pollen days begin in late October and coincided with a spike in hospital presentations for asthma treatment.

Professor Haberle and his fellow researchers involved in the pollen count project planned to plot this season's data with asthma hospital presentations from NSW and ACT Health.

"We have a sense that there is a strong link particularly with extreme pollen days and asthma attacks," he said.

After the spike in pollen expected for February, Professor Haberle said the counts will drop during the winter months until late September.

But people sensitive to European trees like elms and birch trees and natives like casuarinas may suffer symptoms during the August to September period.

Professor Haberle said researchers were watching for "sleeper plants" like the North American introduced species ambrosia as potential additions to the Canberra region with an autumn to winter flowering period.

"They're prevalent around Sydney … if that starts to build up in environment it could really start to extend the hay fever or potential allergenic period for people living in the region," he said.

The pollen count and forecast will officially end on December 31, but Professor Haberle said there were a network of researchers in capital cities across Australia keen to continue the project.

He hopes to extend the double the three-month pollen monitoring period so it runs from September until the end of February.

Clare Colley is Head of Audience Engagement at The Australian Financial Review. She was previously an online editor, arts editor and journalist at The Canberra Times.

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