We’re in the midst of peak hay fever hell. More than 13 million people in the UK are stricken by pollen allergies, according to NHS figures, just as we’re experiencing shortages of the active ingredient in Piriton and other hayfever remedies.

The middle of May is often the danger zone for hay fever sufferers, as it is when the two main types of pollen – from trees and grasses – are released at the same time. But it seems there’s more than meets the (irritated) red eye with this story.

Of course, climate change is partly to blame, but scientists also fear hay fever symptoms and respiratory conditions are being made worse by town planners and misguided tree-planting initiatives. Experts are warning that poor management of these schemes are putting the health of thousands at risk.

Spring is the peak tree-planting period, with schemes encouraging communities to improve their local environment by planting as many trees as possible. For instance, we’ve been invited by the Woodland Trust to ‘plant a tree for the Jubilee’, while across England and Scotland local authorities have been actively planting trees in parks, playgrounds, schools and open spaces. Meanwhile, the Welsh Government has pledged to give a tree to every household as part of its fight against the climate emergency.

Although many of the trees offered through such schemes look attractive and have a minimal leaf fall, their pollen has been linked to increases in the numbers presenting with asthma, hay fever and respiratory problems.

But, experts warn, by planting inexpensive, fast-growing trees – such as the silver birch – we are exposing children and adults to high levels of potentially harmful pollen.

As an attractive tree that’s resilient to traffic pollution, the silver birch is now a common sight in cities. But its fine pollen cannot be absorbed into the earth (as it would in a natural setting) and, instead, flies about invisibly. Birch pollen has become a menace for people who not only are suffering from hay fever but also Oral Allergy Syndrome (also known as Pollen Food Syndrome) – a secondary food allergy with symptoms such as an itchy mouth and throat, local swelling and indigestion.

“In allergy terms, birch pollen is particularly problematic due to the Oral Allergy Syndrome that links it to food allergies,” explains Dr Glenis Scadding, a consultant allergist and respiratory specialist. “Each year new people find that they have become sensitized to an allergen such as tree pollen. Besides allergic rhinitis, tree pollens can cause asthma and PFS. “


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