Pollen Allergy

What is pollen allergy?

Pollen allergy is an allergy to pollen, tiny particles released by trees, grasses and weeds. Pollen grains float through the air in spring, summer and fall – or year-round in areas with mild winters. On their way to fertilize plants and tree flowers, pollen particles often end up in our noses, eyes, ears and mouths, and cause allergy symptoms.

When is pollen allergy season?

Trees are the first plants to begin their mating process (which, after all, is what pollen is all about), releasing their pollen in late winter and early spring. Common tree allergens include:

  • oak
  • maple
  • birch
  • cedar
  • juniper
  • mountain cedar
  • eucalyptus

Mountain cedar is an early bloomer in the south – often causing allergies in December in Texas and Oklahoma. It releases so much pollen that it looks like smoke in the air.

Some trees, like birch, only release pollen for a couple of weeks each year; others, like eucalyptus, pollinate all year long.

Trees are followed by grasses in late spring and summer and by weeds, especially the potent ragweed, in late summer and fall. Common weeds which can cause seasonal allergies in the fall include:

  • ragweed
  • burning bush
  • cocklebur
  • lamb’s quarters
  • pigweed
  • sage brush
  • mugwort
  • Russian thistle

What are the points to know about pollen?

  • Pollen that causes allergy tends to be small, light and dry. It is easily spread by wind over long distances. The pollen that gets all over your car or lawn furniture is not as much of an allergy problem as the pollen too small to be seen.
  • Bright-colored flowers actually release less pollen into the air than their drab cousins. Instead they depend on insects to carry pollen from one blossom to another.
  • Airborne pollen counts are usually highest early in the day just after the dew dries and on into late morning.
  • There is often a burst of pollen into the air when the wind comes up just before a rainstorm. During and after the rain, however, pollen becomes damp and heavy with moisture, keeping it still and on the ground.

What do I need to know about pollen allergies and food?

Pollen-food syndrome is an allergic reaction you can have to certain fresh fruits, vegetables or nuts if you have an allergy to birch, ragweed or grass pollen. Pollen-food syndrome is also called oral allergy syndrome.

What are the symptoms of pollen allergies?

Symptoms of pollen allergies may be:

  • Nasal congestion
  • Runny nose with thin, water discharge
  • Postnasal drip
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Watery, itchy or irritated eyes
  • Eye swelling – the “allergic shiner”
  • Weakness or fatigue
  • Hives on the skin

How do I know if I’m allergic to pollen or if I have seasonal allergies?

The only way to know for sure if you have a pollen allergy is to see a board-certified allergist for testing. The allergist will apply a small amount of diluted allergen to your skin and wait 15 minutes to see of a raised, itchy, red bump appears. If it does, then you have an allergy to that particular pollen or mold.

How do you treat pollen allergies?

Over-the-counter and prescription allergy medications, including antihistamines and anti-inflammatory nasal sprays, can help relieve symptoms.

If you know your pollen allergies are worse in early spring, for example, start taking your allergy medications two weeks before symptoms are at their worst. Talk with your doctor about which medication is best for you.

Pre-medicate with an antihistamine and/or corticosteroid nasal spray 2 hours prior to an anticipated allergen exposure. For eye allergies, use eye drops as needed.

Allergy shots (immunotherapy) often provide long-lasting relief for pollen allergy. Sublingual immunotherapy, also known as oral immunotherapy is a pill form of immunotherapy and available for grass and ragweed pollen allergies.

How do you avoid pollen allergy symptoms?

Managing pollen allergies is a multi-step process, and patients need to be actively involved in their care. Along with visiting your primary care doctor or allergist and taking medication as prescribed, it’s important to find ways to reduce your exposure to pollen.

  • Use over-the-counter sterile saline eye drops and/or nasal spray frequently to flush out pollen from your eyes and nasal passages.
  • During pollen season, close your windows and run the air conditioner at home and in your car.
  • If you’re allergic to tree pollen, then you should avoid wooded areas, especially in the early spring when tree pollens are most prevalent. If you’re allergic to grass pollen, avoid lawns or fields, especially in the late spring when grass pollen is at its height.
  • If you buy trees for your yard, look for species less likely to cause allergy symptoms, such as crape myrtle, dogwood, pear, plum or redbud. You might also consider female varieties of ash, maple, poplar or willow trees.
  • Pollen can come inside on you and your clothing. Change your clothes when you get in and keep pollen off your pillow by showering and washing your hair before going to bed.
  • Dry your laundry indoors rather than outside.
  • Check daily pollen counts, but realize they often represent collections made 24-48 hours earlier. In addition, the amount of pollen it takes to set off symptoms varies considerably from one person to the next.
  • Some people with severe pollen allergies may choose to wear a facemask designed to filter pollen and keep it from reaching nasal passages. This is not always practical, however. If eye allergies are a problem, consider wearing sunglasses.

Are there certain times of the day that tend to be worse for allergies?

Airborne pollen tends to be highest early in the day, just after the dew dries, and on into early afternoon. High pollen levels can sometimes last until late afternoon. They can be most potent when conditions are warm, dry and breezy, and after a thunderstorm or rainfall.

The pollen count is never zero, so time your outdoor activities to when allergens are at their lowest. If you must be outdoors during high pollen times, avoid intense physical activity that causes rapid breathing; the faster you breathe, the more allergens you inhale. Exercise indoors, if possible.

Do allergy seasons really vary in intensity from year to year?

Many doctors and scientists say allergy seasons are intensifying, starting earlier and lasting longer. Climate change is a factor. It’s fueled in part by rising temperatures and mild winters, allowing pollen-producing trees and grass to bloom earlier. The extended growing seasons leads to increased levels of airborne allergens.

In addition, snowmelt in late winter or early spring can increase moisture that allows trees to produce more pollen when they bloom.

How do pollen allergies affect people with asthma?

People with asthma who are allergic to ragweedmold or other fall allergens should be extra cautious as exposure can cause an asthma flare.

It is important to keep your asthma well controlled by taking daily medications exactly as prescribed, avoiding triggers and following your Asthma Action Plan.

It’s also important to know how to use your inhaler correctly so that you maximize the amount of medication that makes it to your lungs and airways. Review the instructions periodically and demonstrate your inhaler technique at every doctor appointment to confirm you’re using it correctly.

In the fall, ragweed pollen is believed to be one of the primary reasons for the September Asthma Peak – a time in mid-September when asthma-related hospitalizations and ER visits spike. It happens soon after children go back to school and are exposed to more allergens as well as respiratory illnesses.

© 2021 Allergy and Asthma Network

Last updated : 12/11/2020

Pollen Allergy originally published by Allergy & Asthma Network