Spring Allergies

The days are longer and it’s warming up. It’s green.  Yes, it is spring. Hay fever (Allergic Rhinitis) is the most common of the allergic diseases and refers to seasonal nasal symptoms that are due to pollens.  Each plant has a pollinating period that is more or less the same from year to year.  Spring allergies are a result of pollen from trees, which typically start pollinating from March to April, depending on the climate.  In some areas, some weeds will also pollinate in the springtime.  Late spring and early summer allergy is typically due to grass pollen. Pollen grains are microscopic structures that help a plant to reproduce.  In some species, the plant uses the pollen from its own flowers to fertilize itself. Other types must be cross-pollinated; that is, in order for fertilization to take place and seeds to form, pollen must be transferred from the flower of one plant to that of another plant of the same species.  Insects do this job for certain flowering plants, while other plants rely on wind transport.  The types of pollen that most commonly cause allergic reactions are produced by the plain-looking plants that do not have showy flowers. These plants manufacture small, light, dry pollen grains that are ideal for wind transport.

Though there are botanical groupings of trees, with allergenic cross reactivity from one to another (i.e. if you are allergic to one tree, you can be allergic to a tree of the same class), many tree allergic individuals are allergic to only select trees.  Perhaps the most common tree pollen allergy is that due to birch and oak.  Unlike the trees, individuals who are allergic to one of the so-called Northern pasture grasses – rye, timothy, Kentucky blue, orchard, red top, fescue – tend to be allergic to the others.  There is a very high degree of allergenic cross reactivity.   Among North American plants, weeds are the most prolific producers of allergenic pollen, though these are usually not a problem until the late summer-early fall.  Colorful or scented flowers have large, heavy, waxy pollen grains. This type of pollen is not carried by wind but by insects such as butterflies and bees, and is not, despite common belief, typically a cause of seasonal allergy. Similarly, the heavy, very visible pine pollen is usually not a significant cause of symptoms.

 A pollen count is a measure of how much pollen is in the air. This count represents the concentration of all the pollen (or of one particular type, like ragweed) in the air in a certain area at a specific time. It is expressed in grains of pollen per square meter of air collected over 24 hours. Pollen counts tend to be highest early in the morning on warm, dry, breezy days and lowest during chilly, wet periods. To check the pollen count in your area, you can click on this Pollen count link.

So what can be done if you suffer from seasonal pollen allergy? With any allergic condition, the first line of defense is what is called Allergen Avoidance.  Because airborne pollen is carried for long distances, it does little good to rid an area of an offending plant as the pollen can drift in from many miles away.  Other tips that may be helpful include the following:

  • Keep windows and outside doors shut during pollen season.
  • Use central or room A/C, so you can keep windows and outside doors shut
  • Consider pollen counts when planning outdoor activities.  It may help to limit your outdoor activities during the times of highest pollen counts.  Outdoor activities may be better tolerated after a gentle, sustained rain.
  • Encourage hand washing after outdoor play to avoid transferring pollen from the hands to the eyes and nose.
  • If you are outdoors during pollen season, take a shower and wash your hair, change your clothes (not in your bedroom), and leave these clothes in the laundry room.
  • Dry laundry in a dryer only; avoid hanging clothes outside to dry.
  • Drive with your windows closed.  If it is hot, use your air conditioner.
  • Keep pets that spend time outdoors out of the bedroom.  In addition to animal dander, they may carry and deposit pollen stuck to their fur.

 Not uncommonly, medical therapy may be required.  There are a variety of options and these need to be tailored to an individual’s symptoms and preferences.  Antihistamines such as Claritin® (loratadine) or Zyrtec® (cetirizine) can be helpful for itchy eyes and an itchy, runny nose, along with sneezing.  Antihistamines do not work that well for a stuffy nose.  If nasal congestion is a problem, you may find better relief with a decongestant such as Sudafed® (pseudoephedrine) or better yet with a topical nasal steroid spray.  There are many options available for this type of prescription nasal spray such as Flovent®, fluticasone, Nasonex®, and others.  Your doctor can help you decide which one is right for you.  The nasal spray is best used on a regular (daily) basis to achieve the maximum effect.  For one with symptoms that occur every spring, it is best to start your therapy prior to the onset of the season, perhaps by the end of March. Other nasal sprays for example Astelin® or Atrovent® may be of value for select individuals.  For those whose allergy eye symptoms are not controlled with the above you doctor can prescribe one of several allergy eye drops that may be of great benefit.

Another very effective option for treatment of seasonal allergy is allergy immunotherapy, better known as Allergy Shots.  Immunotherapy involves a series of injections that over time allow your body to become tolerant to its allergies.  The result is that you are less symptomatic after exposure to pollen (and other allergens) and find the need for less medication to control your symptoms.  If this option is of interest to you, or you feel you would like to be tested to see if in fact you have allergies (and to what) please feel free to contact us at info@masslung.com or 508-926-8240.