Which South African city should you choose to live in if you have seasonal allergy symptoms such as conjunctivitis (itchy eyes) or rhinitis (a runny nose)? There is no straightforward answer to this question but let us unpack some of the facts and myths about seasonal allergic rhinitis.

When cities are compared according to the pollen count, pollen measured in each city during a twelve-month period is summed. This value is known as the Annual Pollen Index and the cities or regions are then compared according to their Pollen Index. Moving to a region with a low Pollen Index may seem sensible, but this may not alleviate the problem because there may be allergenic plants nearby that are impossible to control, perhaps in a neighbouring garden.

So which steps can be taken by a seasonal allergy sufferer to reduce symptoms?

Step 1: Know your triggers

Rather than coping with the upheaval of moving to a different area, it is far wiser to arrange a consultation with an allergist who will take a careful history of your symptoms and order skin or blood allergy tests. Pollen triggers for the uncomfortable symptoms caused by hay fever, rhinitis or conjunctivitis will be identified by testing and can be managed with the appropriate medication like a non-sedating antihistamine, nasal sprays and decongestants.

Step 2: Be prepared for the pollen season

Professor Jonny Peter of the University of Cape Town’s Lung Institute and his team of aerobiologists and palynologists at universities around the country have been measuring pollen in the air of seven South African cities since 2019. The South African Pollen Network (SAPNET) measures daily pollen scores in these cities and they are updated each week. Pollen counts for South African cities may be found at The Real Pollen Count: are shared on The Real Pollen Count website (www.pollencount.co.za) each week. Following The Real Pollen Count on social media or signing up to the weekly newsletter via the website, will deliver these results straight to your mobile phone.

Useful tips for pollen allergy, such as managing seasonal allergy symptoms, or keeping a first aid allergy kit handy can be found on their social media. The cities have been ranked according to their total pollen score, their total tree pollen sum and the total grass pollen count. Not all pollen is allergenic and it is usually the wind pollinated plants that trigger seasonal symptoms. Trees may release pollen all year round but the highest tree pollen levels are found in late winter or early springtime. Grasses release millions of tiny pollen grains that are easily inhaled and so the grass season in sunny South Africa is longer than in it is in many countries that have very low winter temperatures. Following these counts, and paying attention to flowering plants in your neighbourhood from late winter through to late summer, may also help you identify triggers not commonly tested for in allergy testing batteries.

Step 3: Travellers and holidaymakers note the different pollen seasons in SA cities

It is especially important to watch the South African pollen website if you are a business traveller or holidaymaker because allergenic pollen seasons vary amongst the cities. The cities that are being monitored are in different vegetation biomes with different climates. For instance, Cape Town is in a winter rainfall area so grasses grow and flower after the winter rains and the highest grass counts are seen in October but all the other listed cities are in summer rainfall areas so the grass season occurs later, sometimes peaking as late as January. If you or your family have seasonal symptoms, it is sensible to prepare for different pollen seasons when travelling around South Africa and you are sensitive to grass pollen.

Step 4: Tips for seasonal allergy sufferers

  • Keep car and home windows closed where possible
  • Choose succulents to keep indoors and avoid allergenic pot plants
  • Use nasal snifters and wear a mask when mowing grass
  • Do not hang clothes outdoors in the peak pollen season
  • Exercise in coastal areas during the tree pollen season

Step 5: When Immunotherapy is indicated

Debilitating allergy to grasses may be treated by desensitisation to grass allergens. This will always be carried out in a clinical setting and will reduce
symptoms. It is especially helpful for elite athletes who may compete during the grass flowering season and are exposed to grass pollen when exercising.

City Total Pollen Ranking Vegetation Biome Climate Highest pollen category
Bloemfontein 1 Grassland Steppe Grasses
Johannesburg 2 Grassland Highveld Trees; Weeds
Cape Town 3 Fynbos Mediterranean
Kimberley 4 Savanna Semi-arid
Pretoria 5 Grassland/Savanna Highveld
Durban 6 Indian Ocean Coastal Belt Subtropical
Gqeberha 7 Albany Thicket Oceanic