With the effects of climate change lengthening the hay fever season for many of us, it’s not surprising if you’re looking for new ways to treat your itchy nose and watery eyes. And if you’re after an alternative to medication, there are plenty of natural remedies for hay fever – but do they work?
You may have heard people talk about the benefits of honey, essential oils or acupuncture. Or be wondering if hay fever balms can really deal with allergens as effectively as steroid nasal sprays. Or even if it’s worth splashing out on an expensive air purifier to remove pollen from your environment.
The array of products on offer can be confusing and overwhelming. Which is why we’ve done the hard work for you. We’ve got the lowdown on which natural remedies and products can be effective – and safe – additions or alternatives to treatment from your pharmacist or doctor.
Hay fever home remedies: what’s worth buying?
Before buying natural remedies for hay fever, it’s worth trying prevention and self-care tips as the first step in tackling your symptoms. A pharmacist can also advise on suitable and effective medicines for you, such as antihistamines or nasal sprays.
If you want to try natural hay fever treatments, they generally work in 1 of 2 ways: either by stopping the allergens that cause hay fever from entering your body, or by flushing them out. But remember that they haven’t been clinically tested in the same way as medication, and in some cases more research is needed into their safety and effectiveness.
You should always check with your doctor or pharmacist first if you’re pregnant or thinking of trying alternative therapies for a child, or before trying any supplements or herbal remedies for hay fever that may interfere with other medication you are taking.
In the meantime, read on to find out which products and natural remedies can play a part in safely treating and managing hay fever – and those that are best avoided.
Hay fever wipes to remove pollen
The lowdown: Unfragranced wipes can be a convenient, refreshing and safe way to remove allergens such as pollen from your skin when you’re out and about.
Look for wipes that are designed for sensitive skin – such as those made with 99% water and no fragrances – and ophthalmologically tested, so safe to use around your eyes and nose.
You may want to choose biodegradable wipes to avoid adding to landfill, and wash your face using water when you can.
The verdict: There aren’t any safety issues here – it’s more a question of the potential expense and environmental impact. Wipes are good for travelling, but when you’re at home, rinsing your face with water and wiping away allergens with a soft cloth will work just as well.
Hay fever balms to trap pollen
The lowdown: Hay fever balms are designed to create a barrier to allergen invaders – you apply them around the outside of your nostrils to trap pollen before it gets a chance to get inside and irritate your nasal passages.
Made with natural, sometimes organic ingredients, balms can be fragrance-free or scented with calming smells such as lavender or menthol, and come in handy portable pots. They’re safe to use on children and if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.
The verdict: Carrying a small pot of balm can be a good option if you’re out and about, as you’ll need to apply it frequently if you have a runny nose or you’re sneezing a lot. Again, it’s a question of cost – a tub of Vaseline does the same job for around a third of the price.
Saline nasal sprays and neti pots to fight congestion
The lowdown: Research shows that using salt-water (saline) nasal sprays or rinsing your nasal passages with a saline solution can be an effective way to clear allergens. Known as nasal douching or irrigation, it washes away irritants and excess mucus from your nose, helping to relieve congestion.
Some studies also suggest that saline sprays and rinsing can reduce your need for medication. But while they can flush out allergens, remember that they don’t have the anti-inflammatory active ingredients of a steroid nasal spray. And bear in mind that too much nasal irrigation may actually irritate your nasal lining.
You can buy saline nasal sprays or saline solution sachets from a pharmacy, or you can make your own sterile solution by mixing 1 tsp salt and 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda into 560ml of boiled water, then leaving it to cool to body temperature (don’t use it when it’s still hot).
To rinse your nose, you can simply cup a little saline solution in your hand and sniff it into 1 nostril at a time (with the other nostril closed), or you can buy a small syringe or a pot called a ‘neti pot’ to help flush the solution around your nose.
The verdict: Ready-made saline nasal sprays can be handy for popping in your bag, and shouldn’t cause nasal irritation if you stick to the recommended dose. If you’re making your own solution, be sure to follow good hygiene. Check the water you’re using (including tap water) is safe and has been boiled, filtered, treated, or processed to remove bacteria, and always clean a neti pot or syringe after every use.
Sunglasses and eye masks to protect and soothe eyes
The lowdown: For superior eye protection from hay fever, take inspiration from top athletes and choose wrap-around sunglasses – they create a bigger shield to stop allergens settling in your eyes. And now that they’ve become fashionable with non-sporting people, there are more styles to suit all shape faces.
If you have ‘hay fever eyes’ and they’re already inflamed, puffy or sore, applying a cold compress can help reduce swelling and redness. You can buy special cooling gel eye masks from pharmacies, which you can chill in the fridge or freezer.
You could also try cooling cucumber slices then placing them on your eyes – though while you may find them soothing, there’s little evidence that they’re effective in reducing any puffiness.
The verdict: Wraparound sunglasses are a no-brainer for while you’re out and about in pollen season, while a cooling eye mask might be worth investing in if you often get puffy eyes – though a cool flannel may do the job just as well.
Air purifiers to pollen proof your home
The lowdown: Air purifiers take in air and capture particles such as pollen, before sending clear air back out. How efficient they are depends on the type of filter they use – but a gold-standard high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter can theoretically remove up to 99.97% of tiny particles from the air.
Prices vary, depending on size and other functions – which you may not need (such as removing smells from the air with carbon filters) – but they’re generally not a cheap option. Some have timers or can be operated by an app, while others have sensors that adapt to the level of pollution in the room. Choose a purifier to suit the size of your room.
Other options for clearing pollen from the air include:
- vacuum cleaners with allergy filters, which can suck up pollen particles
- in-car pollen filters or cabin air filters – if you have one, you’ll need to change it regularly
- portable air-conditioning units (PAC) with HEPA-standard filters
The verdict: Air purifiers and filters are an expensive option, which can help clear the air to relieve your hay fever symptoms, as long as windows and doors are kept closed. But they’re not a replacement for medication, and more research is needed to prove their effectiveness over and above claims by manufacturers.
Do alternative therapies work for hay fever?
Here’s what you need to know about some of the common alternative therapies for hay fever:
- acupuncture – evidence from a review of clinical trials suggests that acupuncture may ease nasal symptoms, lower the level of medication you need and generally improve your quality of life. If you want to try it, make sure you find a qualified, trained practitioner or regulated healthcare professional – search the British Acupuncture Council or the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture
- butterbur – extract from the leaves of the butterbur plant have been shown to reduce itchy eyes as effectively as antihistamines in several small trials. People who are sensitive to plants such as ragweed, chrysanthemums, marigolds and daisies should avoid butterbur, as it may cause an allergic reaction. And only buy products certified as pyrrolizidine alkaloids free (PA-free) – PAs can damage the liver, lungs, and blood circulation, and possibly cause cancer.
- probiotics – with so many different strains of these ‘friendly’ bacteria available, it’s hard to pinpoint those that may help with hay fever. However, 1 small trial found that people with mild hay fever who took a combination of lactobacilli and bifidobacteria reported improved quality of life, with fewer nasal symptoms. The World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines suggest women could consider taking probiotics when pregnant or breastfeeding if the baby is at a high risk of developing an allergy
- essential oils – lavender, frankincense and camomile are among the oils sometimes used to ease hay fever symptoms, but there’s no firm evidence of their effectiveness. If you want, try the calming aromas to see if they work for you
- honey – you may have heard about people using honey to treat hay fever symptoms, but unfortunately this is an old wive’s tale with no scientific evidence to support it. It’s also worth noting that people who are allergic to pollen can also be allergic to honey.
Diet and hay fever: watch this space
- a large study in Australia found people who ate a diet high in meat, poultry, and seafood were more likely to have hay fever – although this doesn’t prove anything, you could try cutting down on these foods to lower your risk
- encouraging research in Greece found that children aged 7-18 who ate a Mediterranean diet had fewer allergy-related symptoms. A study found that eating plenty of nuts, grapes, oranges, apples and fresh tomatoes offered protection against wheezing and nasal allergy symptoms. It’s believed this is down to the immune-boosting antioxidants these foods contain. More research is needed to establish this link.
- pollen food syndrome (PFS) is another condition caused by pollen allergy and is often associated with hay fever. It affects about 2% of people in the UK. If you suffer from PFS, eating some raw fruit, vegetables and nuts can cause a mild reaction, such as itching in your mouth and throat. As hay fever is usually caused by pollen in the environment or air, avoiding eating these foods won’t change your nose or eye symptoms, but look out for any symptoms in your mouth when you eat certain raw foods
When to see a doctor
If you’re planning to try any natural remedies, it’s best to speak to your doctor or pharmacist first – especially if you’re pregnant or taking any other medication.
You should get emergency medical help if you’ve taken a natural remedy and you have signs of a serious allergic reaction (anaphylaxis), such as a skin rash, wheezing, breathlessness and tightness in your chest.
Your health questions answered
Does paracetamol help with hay fever?
“While paracetamol won’t treat hay fever itself, it can relieve headaches and sinus pain, which are common hay fever symptoms. Non-drowsy antihistamines such as cetirizine can also cause headaches as a common side effect, affecting more than 1 in 100 people. It’s safe to take paracetamol if you’re taking this medication.”
Can botox help with hay fever?
“Research shows that botox can help relieve hay fever symptoms, and could be a good future option for people who are resistant to other hay fever treatments. One small study found it eased symptoms for up to 8 weeks, reducing itching, sneezing and a blocked nose.”