While milder spring weather may bring relief for some folks following the winter chills, this seasonal transition is anything but a “walk in the park” for a large portion of the population. According to the National Institutes of Health, pollen allergy is one of the most common chronic diseases in the United States—an estimated 35 million Americans suffer from allergic reactions to airborne allergens (pollen, animal dander, dust mite, mold spores). People with tree allergies, in particular, can experience increased symptoms during the spring months as trees bloom and release allergy-inducing pollen.
Allergies are basically the immune system’s response to generally harmless foreign substances called allergens. When people have allergies, their immune system discharges chemicals such as “histamines” to fight off the allergens. In fact, it is the release of histamines and other chemicals, not the allergens, that provoke the majority of allergy symptoms. In the case of seasonal allergies, symptoms are the result of pollen grain landing on the lining of nose, eyes or lungs.
Symptoms, which can span from mildly annoying to incapacitating, include watery, itchy red eyes, sneezing, runny nose, nasal congestion, throat clearing, loss of smell, and even coughing and wheezing. Sometimes it’s difficult to determine if symptoms are due to allergies or a cold, but it’s important to make the distinction to ensure proper treatment. Colds rarely last longer than seven days, will sometimes cause a fever and muscle aches, and usually cause yellow mucus. Allergies tend to last longer – weeks or months – and the mucus usually runs clear.
To minimize exposure, it helps to know what you are allergic to and if those allergens happen to be plants when they bloom. Trees pollinate in the spring, grass in the beginning of summer, and the fall is weed season. Where you live can also play a role in the onset and length of allergy symptoms.
“The northern part of the country typically has high tree pollen levels in March, April and May, although this year's colder winter may have delayed the process in some areas,” Dr. Kevin McGrath, a spokesman for the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, told medicinenet.com. “Southern states start a bit earlier, and can have high tree pollen counts beginning in January.”
Pollens are delivered via bees, birds or the wind, but wind actually delivers the pollens that induce allergies. Pollen is carried best by the wind on dry, sunny days. Thus dry, windy days make pollen allergies worse. Counts are usually lower when it's cold or damp, or there is a steady, prolonged rain.
Most types of grass release pollen only when they grow tall and produce a feathery flower that grows at the top. If you keep your lawn mowed, the grass is less likely to release pollen. However, some grasses, like Bermuda, can still release pollen when kept short. This can be a vexing problem for golfers who have a grass allergy since many courses use Bermuda grass.
If you're allergic to grasses, your allergy symptoms are more likely to be triggered by particular fruits and vegetables that have proteins like those in pollen. Celery, melons, peaches, oranges, and tomatoes may trigger an itchy skin rash.
The first step to treating allergies is avoiding the source. Plan afternoon outdoor activities rather than the morning when pollen is released, wear glasses to help protect the eyes, and use saline rinses for the nose and eyes to reduce the help wash away pollens. People with seasonal allergies should sleep with the windows closed and use air conditioners to help purify the air coming into the house. Drying clothes outside should be avoided so that clothes are not contaminated.
For the more common and annoying symptoms, over-the-counter oral antihistamines can provide relief from many common allergy symptoms (itchy eyes, sneezing, or a runny nose). In other cases where symptoms are more severe, prescription nasal steroid sprays can also provide relief from nasal congestion by lessening inflammation in the nose, and antihistamine eye drops can assist in the relief of itchy eyes. Of course, patients should consult with their doctor for the best course of treatment.
If over-the-counter products are not providing relief from allergy symptoms, your health care provider may suggest allergy shots, also known as immunotherapy, to target your immune system’s response to the allergens. The shots desensitize the body to specific allergens by injecting the allergen into the body in small, but increasing doses.
Remember, each year someone will always say this is the worst allergy season ever, but it all depends on what you’re allergic to, how much pollen that plant is releasing, and whether it is pollenating earlier or longer than usual. A rainy fall will typically worsen the spring allergy season for those allergic to tree pollen. Lots of spring showers will clear the air, but that won’t make the grass pollen sufferers too happy.