Hay fever drugs boom as pollen counts and profits go sky high

· Companies vie for £80m over-the-counter trade
· Climate shifts extend seasonal misery

For the country's 12 million hay fever sufferers, it could be the low point of the year. According to one forecast, the hay fever season will be at its worst at precisely 6.02pm today when pollen released high into the atmosphere in the morning returns to the ground, catching people out before they have started taking their pills, liquids, sprays and eyedrops.

Experts at the National Pollen and Aerobiology Research Unit (NPARU) at Worcester University warn that by the middle of this week pollen levels might soar above the all-important 50 grains per cubic metre mark, the point where the sneezing, streaming, itchy eyes and general feelings of lousiness are likely to kick in.

But where there is misery, there is money. Remedies for hay fever are now the fastest growing over-the-counter medicine in the country, and companies that have grabbed part of the market will take more than £80m from the British public this season. With volume up 19.4% a year and estimates suggesting some hay fever treatments sell for 30,000% more than the cost of the active ingredients, the battle for market dominance has become serious.

The main players are GlaxoSmithKline, which owns four of the top six remedies (Piriton, Beconase, Piriteze and Flixonase), Pfizer (Benadryl), and Schering-Plough (Clarityn). But the rival companies are also fighting profit-denting generic versions of their drugs being sold in supermarkets as the original patents expire. It means lower prices, but the market still has huge potential.

Hay fever was virtually unknown before 1800 and has become common only in the past 100 years. "All the epidemiological studies published in the past couple of years agree there's a trend to more allergy and lots of things are probably contributing, including the excessive use of antibiotics, poor diets lacking in antioxidants, pollution, and even the fact that improved hygiene means our immune systems are not being challenged by bacteria as often as they were," said Jean Emberlin of NPARU.

About 18 domestic tree and plant species shed allergenic pollen and previously each pollinated over a few tightly-defined weeks. Now, shifts in climate have caused trees to pollinate earlier, while grasses go on later. The result is an atmosphere awash with pollen for a substantial part of the year.

For hay fever sufferers, it is the drab all-green plants that are the biggest problem. Colourful flowers are insect-pollinated, producing heavy, sticky pollen that does not travel far on the wind. But grasses, weeds and trees produce billions of ultralight pollen particles evolved to hang in the air, to spread as far as possible. Grass pollen is the main culprit for hay fever, affecting 95% of sufferers.

Most hay fever sufferers only notice when pollen levels climb above 50 grains per cubic metre, but last year NPARU measured daily average pollen levels of 980 grains per cubic metre in Derby with peaks far above that. The Midlands and lowlands tend to be particularly badly hit, thanks to an unhelpful alliance of local grasses, wind direction and pollution.

According to Professor Emberlin, there is no best way to combat hay fever. People can cut their chances of ever developing it by avoiding exposure to high pollen levels, but for sufferers remedies include antihistamines, corticosteroids, nasal sprays and decongestants.

One of the biggest problems, says Prof Emberlin, is that people don't take hay fever seriously.

"This is not trivial. If you don't treat it it can develop into asthma," she says. "The most important thing is for people to recognise they have it. People tend to think it's not very serious, but it can make life truly miserable."

Motes and theories

· Hay fever or "seasonal allergic rhinitis" is an allergic reaction to pollen. It has nothing to do with hay.

· It affects up to 20% of Britons, including increasingly more children.

· Warmer winters and springs cause trees to flower earlier.

· Hay fever was first documented in 1819. Its cause was identified in 1873.

· Complimentary therapies include the herb butterbur, acupuncture and honey from hives within five miles.


Ian Sample, science correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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