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Victoria braces for challenging grass pollen season, with extreme conditions on the way

Quick read

  • In short: The Melbourne Pollen service is predicting a worse-than-average grass pollen season due to El Niño weather patterns and record warm temperatures.

  • High-to-extreme grass pollen levels are forecast across northern Victoria from today, with a statewide forecast of extreme grass pollen levels by Monday.

  • London plane trees, which make up 70 percent of Melbourne’s CBD trees, are also a significant source of pollen.

Victorians are being warned of a challenging year for hay fever and asthma sufferers, with the Melbourne Cup long weekend heralding at least a week of high-to-extreme pollen levels.

The Melbourne Pollen service is forecasting high-to-extreme grass pollen levels across northern Victoria from today, with a statewide forecast of extreme grass pollen levels by Monday.

The extreme levels will likely continue until at least Thursday.

People are being advised to stay indoors, keep windows closed, ensure they have hay fever and asthma medication on hand, and to consult with GPs and pharmacists where necessary.

A graph that shows the 2023 grass pollen season is currently worse than the season is 2018, 2020 and the average.
The Melbourne Pollen service is predicting the 2023 grass pollen season could be worse than average.(Melbourne Pollen)

The Melbourne Pollen count said this year’s season started early due to the El Niño weather pattern and record warm temperatures, and was outpacing both the average season and the significant 2020 season.

There have already been nine high grass pollen days this year, compared with five at the same time in 2020.

Plant cell biologist Edwin Lampugnani said the early onset of high pollen days was unprecedented in recent decades.

In good news, the service is also forecasting the warmer and drier spring weather could mean an early end to the season.

Introduced rye-grass major pollen source

Victoria is among the worst locations in the country for those who suffer hay fever — also known as allergic rhinitis.

Dr Lampugnani said the introduced species perennial rye-grass is common in Victoria, particularly in agricultural areas, along roadsides, and in a wide variety of natural habitats.

He said pollen from grasses was spread by the wind.

“As the weather warms up and the wind turns more westerly, grass pollen from Victoria’s pasture lands can be brought into the city, aggravating respiratory allergies and asthma,” he said.

There are also signs that the effects of climate change are exposing more people to pollen.

Macquarie University environmental health scientist Paul Beggs has explained how even small increases in carbon dioxide levels can result in plants ramping up pollen production.

“In some ways, we’re fertilising plants by putting more CO2 into the atmosphere, so many plants are responding to those changes in the environment around them and producing more pollen,” Dr Beggs said.

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London plane trees also part of the problem

Grass pollen is only one part of the picture in Victoria, with other types of pollen sometimes reaching 10 times the amount of grass pollen in the air.

Another introduced species, London plane trees, make up 70 percent of the tree population in Melbourne’s CBD.

According to the City of Melbourne, they were planted in the 1980s and 1990s, chosen for their hardiness and ability to thrive in polluted, urban situations under direct sunlight.

But streets full of London plane trees make walking and bike riding a misery for hay fever and asthma sufferers in spring, as their little fuzzy allergenic hair balls (also known as trichomes) float around on windy days.

They can cause coughing fits, along with eye, throat and skin irritation.

The city said plane trees are “an important and successful tree in Melbourne”, but 65 percent will be removed from the city by 2040 and replaced with a mixture of native and international species.

City of Melbourne councillor, Rohan Leppert, who holds the environment portfolio, said although plane trees cause physical irritation for some, “medical research indicates grass pollen is by far the most common cause of hay fever in Victoria”.

That may be the case, but it does not discount them as a major source of irritation in central Melbourne. 

Other types of pollen in Victoria include myrtle pollen, which comes from native trees such as eucalypts and paperbarks, and olive pollen, which stems from ash trees and that beautiful smelling jasmine.

What is the best remedy?

There are several medications and other remedies available from pharmacists to help with pollen-related conditions.

Other solutions include spreading petroleum jelly around the inside of your nostrils — it is sticky and picks up the pollen before it can irritate sinuses.

You can also breathe in steam if your sinuses are already affected, and compresses or washing can help with eye irritation.

Air conditioning that recirculates air is good too, or consider purchasing an air purifier, ensuring it contains a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter.

The COVID-era masks you may still have lying around could also be helpful, especially the N95 type.

Other natural remedies range from vitamin C and stinging nettle extract to turmeric and ginger. Your level of success may vary!

Then there is the obvious, like staying inside on high pollen count days. Melbourne Pollen has a phone app where you can see the pollen forecasts.

For Melbourne’s prolific plane trees, specific fashion choices may help curb the worst of their allergenic effects.

Allergist and clinical immunologist Professor Robyn O’Hehir told the Guardian in 2019 she tells patients to “wear wraparound sunglasses and avoid prominent plane tree areas such as street cafes in Carlton”.

“People often need water or a mouthful of bread to clear the fine particles from their throats,” she said.

Where to get help with pollen allergies:

Image by Freepik.

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