The current severe birch pollen season may lead to an increase in people needing hay fever treatment, a leading pollen forecaster has warned.

Dr Beverley Adams-Groom, a senior palynologist and pollen forecaster at the University of Worcester, told The Pharmacist that high pollen levels would have three effects: hay fever sufferers are likely to experience symptoms on more days during the season, people who are less sensitized are more likely to get symptoms, and hay fever sufferers are more likely to experience ‘breakthrough symptoms’ as their medication cannot deal with all the pollen. She added that in the latter case, ‘additional treatments may be required’.

Birch pollen season, which affects around 25% of hay fever sufferers, began last month and will peak during April, with this year’s season expected to be quite severe. Current levels are listed as ‘very high’.

Dr Adams-Groom explained that birch pollen follows a biennial pattern, with milder years alternating with more severe years, with 2023 predicted to be a more severe year in this pattern.

Additionally, she said that climate change was increasing the intensity of the birch pollen season in some regions of the UK, with warmer summers leading to increased pollen production in June. Higher than average temperatures last June meant that this year’s birch pollen season could be severe for much of the UK, she added.

However, the grass pollen season, which peaks from late May and affects 95% of hay fever sufferers, was expected to be ‘fairly average’, Dr Adams-Groom said.

While it is too early to predict the severity of 2023’s grass pollen season, which is affected by the weather in April, May and early June, when the grasses are growing, Dr Adams-Groom said that the grass pollen season did not seem to have been exacerbated by climate change.

The pollen forecasting team at the University of Worcester advises hay fever sufferers to visit their pharmacist to seek advice on treatments such as antihistamines, barrier creams, nasal sprays and eye drops. It also produces pollen forecasts and pollen calendars that it suggests people use to start their treatment in advance of the season.

In some areas of the UK, local NHS Integrated Care Boards have directed patients to visit their local pharmacy for hay fever advice and over-the-counter treatment, rather than visiting their GP, in efforts to cut NHS prescribing costs and save patients money.

But pharmacists have raised concerns over their capacity to offer walk-in advice. A recent survey conducted by the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC) found that 92% of pharmacy staff have seen a significant increase in requests from patients unable to access general practice, while 96% said that they had seen an increase in requests for help with minor conditions within the last three months.

Over two-thirds (70%) of pharmacy team members reported that patients were having to wait longer in the pharmacy for advice, with many citing staff shortages, increased workload and increased time needed to dispense medications.

Last year, industry-wide shortages of the active ingredient chlorphenamine maleate led to shortages of some hay fever medications such as Piriton.