Common cold masks symptoms of ‘winter hayfever’, leaving people with asthma needlessly suffering and at risk of asthma attacks

Asthma UK is warning people with asthma in the UK that they are now at increased risk of having a potentially life threatening asthma attack as early tree pollen begins to rise, causing winter hay fever. Up to 80% [1] of people with asthma may be needlessly suffering from winter hay fever, the symptoms of which are so similar to the common cold - a runny or blocked nose and sneezing - that the 1 in 11 people with asthma in the UK are now at risk of missing the early warning signs of an imminent attack [2]. Being allergic to pollen is a known risk factor for asthma attacks, so the charity is urging those who may be affected to stay on top of their winter hay fever with the Asthma UK online checklist. [3]

The pollen season can start as early as January and finish as late as November (tree pollen from January to May; grass pollen from May to July; weed pollen from June to November). Yet many people think that hay fever only strikes when the grass pollen season is at its peak in June [4]. Right now the Alder pollen count is rising while Hazel continues to be airbourne, putting many people with asthma at increased risk of having a potentially life threatening attack [5].

But these asthma attacks can be prevented. To help people with asthma who may be experiencing symptoms of winter hay fever, the charity has created an online checklist which includes advice such as using use a steroid nasal spray every day and ensuring they use it properly [6], together with non-drowsy antihistamine tablets as needed, and carrying a reliever inhaler at all times in case of an attack [7].

Every day the lives of three families are devastated by the death of a loved one to an asthma attack and every 10 seconds someone is having a potentially life threatening attack in the UK. So it's crucial that everyone with asthma who finds winter hay fever is a trigger for their asthma understands how to keep the condition under control.

Dr Samantha Walker, Director Research Policy at Asthma UK, says: "Asthma attacks rarely appear from out of the blue, yet far too often people with asthma do not recognise the warning signs of a serious asthma attack, even though tragically two thirds of deaths from asthma attacks can be prevented with better basic care [8].

"The warning signs of an asthma attack can start to come on two to three days beforehand [9] so they can potentially be prevented. If anyone with asthma finds their symptoms are changing or they are wheezing, waking at night, coughing or need to use their reliever inher inhaler more than usual this is a wake-up call that they could be at risk of a potentially life threatening asthma attack and need to take action.

"Anyone with asthma concerned that their asthma is getting worse due to winter hay fever should use the Asthma UK checklist and book an appointment with their GP or healthcare professional. They can also discuss their symptoms with a specialist asthma nurse on the Asthma UK Helpline, 0300 222 5800, open Monday to Friday 9am until 5pm."

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For more information, contact the Asthma UK media team on 020 7786 4949 or mediaoffice@asthma.org.uk. For out of hours enquiries, call 07951 721393.

Notes to editors

  1. Up to 80% of people with allergic asthma have symptoms of rhinitis. (Bousquet et al., 2003; Leynaert et al. 2004; Linneberg et al., 2002)
  2. Symptoms of a cold and 'winter hay fever' Cold Sore throat Runny nose clear at first, often cloudy/coloured later Blocked nose Body ache and fatigue Symptoms usually last between 4-7 days Winter Hay Fever Itchy nose/or eyes Runny nose usually clear Blocked nose Sneezing Symptoms can last all year round or be seasonal, if they're not treated
  3. Asthma UK checklist for managing your asthma. Further information on asthma and hay fever
  4. The Pollen season separates into three sections: tree, grass and weed pollen. Information is based on a combination of information from the University of Worcester and the Met Office
  5. The University of Worcester Pollen Calendar
  6. Advice on how to use a steroid nasal spray
  7. Asthma UK checklist for managing your asthma
  8. The National Review of Asthma Deaths (NRAD)
  9. Your asthma is getting worse if:

    - Your reliever inhaler isn't helping or not lasting more than four hours.
    - You notice any symptoms coming back (wheeze, tightness in chest, feeling breathless, cough).
    - You're waking up at night.
    - Symptoms are interfering with your usual day-to-day activities (for example at work, or exercising).
    - You're using your reliever inhaler more than normal.
    - Your peak flow drops.

About Asthma UK

  • Asthma UKs mission is to stop asthma attacks and cure asthma. We do this by funding world leading research, campaigning for improved care and supporting people to reduce their risk of a potentially life threatening asthma attack
  • Asthma UK is solely funded by public donations
  • The Asthma UK Helpline is open weekdays from 9am to 5pm on 0300 222 5800.
  • For more information about asthma please visit www.asthma.org.uk

Background information on asthma