9 December 2022

Canberra pollen breaks records as TGA approves first new antihistamine in more than a decade

| James Coleman
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Slow down near mowing operations

Staying on top of the mowing program proved difficult last year as wet weather hung around. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Canberra has itched, sniffled, sneezed and coughed through a record pollen season, and it’s not going away anytime soon.

Since 24 November, there has been a never-before-seen consecutive run of days with an extreme pollen count, spelling misery for the region’s hay fever and asthma sufferers.

Professor Simon Haberle (aka, ‘That Pollen Guy’) heads up the Canberra Pollen Monitoring Program at the Australian National University (ANU) and describes it as “extraordinary”, if not entirely a surprise.

“It’s a new record for not only the number of consecutive days but also the sheer amount of grass pollen,” he says.

“We anticipated this would happen in these sorts of climate conditions, with La Niña bringing a lot of rain and green growth. If you look back over previous years, this grass is normally brown and burnt off by now.”

READ ALSO Bogong moths are back – so should Parliament House be worried?

But before you look over at your neighbour’s lush lawn in disgust, the problem stems from rye grass, an introduced species covering many of Canberra’s open spaces. This puts out vast amounts of pollen every year between October and December.

Normally, it should be wrapping up now, but Dr Haberle says we should brace for the season to extend over Christmas into mid-January.

“We’re seeing a really strong, drawn-out season which will probably extend into the New Year. It’s very burdensome on how people are feeling at the moment.”

Dr Mary Bushell is an Assistant Professor of Pharmacy at the University of Canberra (UC) and says Canberra suffers from high pollen levels like few other places in Australia.

“We are far more likely to suffer hay fever due to the high to extreme grass pollen counts,” she says.

“It also depends on the weather, and this year the pollen that triggers hay fever is particularly high because of the wet spring we have had.”

pollen levels

Canberra extreme pollen levels, November 2022. Photo: That Pollen Guy, Twitter.

So apart from popping antihistamine pills and using nasal sprays and eye drops, are there any other options to make the rest of the year more bearable for those with allergies?

This year, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) approved the first new oral antihistamine in more than a decade. Called ‘bilastine’, it’s now available in pharmacies as a treatment for allergic rhinitis (hay fever). But it’s not quite a wonder drug.

“It works similarly to other oral non-sedating antihistamines that are already available and studies show it’s just as effective,’ Dr Bushell says.

“It works quickly, only needs to be taken once a day, and covers the taker for just over 24 hours. Essentially, it just adds an extra option for allergy sufferers.”

READ ALSO Meet That Pollen Guy: the man clearing the air for Canberra’s hay fever sufferers

Beyond that, a specialist may recommend ‘allergen immunotherapy’ for people who have used the other treatments but still suffer from severe symptoms. This takes the form of injections under the skin or a tablet, spray or liquid that goes under the tongue.

“While a full course of treatment may take years, many people experience less or no symptoms to their trigger afterwards.”

The best cure is prevention.

“Recognising your triggers or allergens and avoiding them,” Dr Bushell says.

“For example, wearing wraparound sunglasses, showering after being outside, rinsing your eyes with water and your nose with a mix of salt and water.

“If your trigger is grass pollen, avoid being out in grassy areas and mowing and staying inside with the windows shut when the pollen count is high.

“There is no cure yet for hay fever, but most people can relieve symptoms with the current available treatments.”

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Linda Seaniger6:25 am 15 Dec 22

Pill popping is not an opinion for people with a medical condition. The answer is to mow the grass. As we all know our government is economising on all services and mowing grass is considered unnecessary, so We can have a tram in 30 years time. We continually have an extreme air rating which causes headaches, nose bleed and throat infections just as bad if not worse than being in China with their pollution. The grass is growing in the gutters is up to half a metre high our city looks totally neglected. So if the greens care about the environment, they should be motivated to do something about it.right?

What medical condition prevents you from popping pills? If you have hayfever you better consider moving to some place other than Canberra because it is surrounded by reserves such as the Crace grasslands. No amount of mowing is going to stop the grass pollens. Only solution is to remove protections on nature and urbanise but don’t think this Greens government will allow that!

Rye grass pollens have nothing to do with how long the grass is, they’re there no matter how short or long it is in spring, it just happens springlike conditions have been persistent for a longer period, and grass isn’t the only allergy inducing pollen in Canberra, just the most widespread. Would you like them to cut down all the pollen causing trees and flowers too??

As for the lawn mowing, I’d like to see you get out there and mow in the weather that has prevented them from getting out there in the first place, my backyard grows long in less than 2 weeks after being mowed in this weather and doesn’t have the hills and valleys that are around the region risking being bogged in the saturated ground.

Also, pills aren’t the only option for antihistamines, if they are needed, there are multiple options such as liquids or for truly severe cases injections, the only reasons for not being able to have them would be an allergic reaction to a particular type of antihistamine or being pregnant. I have disabilities and numerous health conditions and can take antihistamines just fine as can majority of people I know with disabilities and chronic health conditions.

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