Seasonal Pollen Allergies: Types, Signs, Diagnosis, and Relief
What Is a Pollen Allergy?
Pollen is a fine powder that comes from trees, grasses, and weeds during their reproductive cycle. A pollen allergy, commonly known as hay fever or allergic rhinitis, is a type of allergy that happens when your immune system reacts to pollen.
If you have a pollen allergy, your immune system sees the pollen as a threat and tries to fight it off by releasing chemicals like histamine. These chemicals can cause a range of symptoms, such as sneezing, runny nose, itchy eyes, and congestion.
In more severe cases, a pollen allergy can cause difficulty breathing, chest tightness, and wheezing. You can experience pollen allergies during a few months of the year or year-round, depending on the types of pollen you're allergic to.
How Long Do Pollen Allergies Last?
The duration of your allergy symptoms can vary depending on the type of pollen you’re allergic to and the climate in your region. Pollen seasons can range from a few weeks to several months, and they may overlap or occur consecutively, potentially prolonging your allergic symptoms.
It's important to monitor local pollen counts, which can help you predict when your pollen allergy symptoms may occur and how long they may last. When pollen season begins, you might experience allergic reactions more frequently, while they may lessen or disappear entirely when pollen levels are low.
What Are the Symptoms of Pollen Allergies?
Pollen allergy symptoms can manifest in various ways, depending on the individual's sensitivity and the type of pollen they are exposed to. While the allergic symptoms for tree, grass, and weed pollen allergies are generally similar, the specific pollen sources and the timing of their prevalence may differ.
Tree Pollen Allergy Symptoms
Tree pollen allergy symptoms include sneezing, runny or stuffy nose, itchy or watery eyes, itchy throat, cough, and fatigue. The main types that cause allergies are species such as birch, oak, cedar, and elm. This type is most prevalent during early spring, with different species releasing pollen at varying times throughout the season. There are also certain types of trees that release pollen during the winter.
Grass Pollen Allergy Symptoms
Grass pollen allergy symptoms also include sneezing, runny or stuffy nose, itchy or watery eyes, itchy throat, cough, and fatigue. The most common grass species that cause allergies are Bermuda, Kentucky bluegrass, Timothy grass, and Johnson grass. Grass pollen season typically occurs in late spring and summer, with pollen levels peaking during warm and sunny days.
Weed and Ragweed Pollen Allergy Symptoms
Grasses and weeds share similar symptoms. Weed and ragweed pollen allergy symptoms include sneezing, runny or stuffy nose, itchy or watery eyes, itchy throat, cough, and fatigue. The most common weed species that cause allergies are ragweed, pigweed, and sagebrush. Weed pollen, particularly from ragweed, is most prevalent in late summer and fall. Ragweed allergies are very common during this time.
What Causes a Pollen Allergy?
Pollen allergy, or allergic rhinitis, is caused by the body's immune system overreacting to pollen. When a person with a pollen allergy comes into contact with pollen, their immune system identifies it as a foreign invader and releases antibodies to attack it.
This triggers the release of histamine and other chemicals, which cause allergic reactions and hay fever symptoms such as sneezing, runny nose, itchy eyes, and throat irritation.
There are certain factors that can also impact the development of pollen allergies or cause allergies to worsen:
A family history of allergies, particularly pollen allergies, increases the likelihood of an individual developing the same condition. A person's genetic makeup can predispose them to have a hyperactive immune response to pollen, causing allergy symptoms.
Exposure to Pollen
Pollen is released by plants as part of their reproductive process. The tiny, lightweight pollen grains can travel through the air, increasing the chances of exposure. People who live in areas with a high pollen count or spend a significant amount of time outdoors during peak pollen seasons are more likely to develop pollen allergies.
Environmental factors, such as air pollution and climate change, can exacerbate allergic reactions. Pollutants can interact with pollen, making it more allergenic, while climate change can lead to longer pollen seasons and higher pollen counts.
What is a Pollen Count?
A pollen count is a measurement of how much pollen is in the air at a given time. It's usually reported as a number representing the number of pollen grains per cubic meter of air. Pollen counts can be measured for different types of pollen.
It’s often used to help people with pollen allergies manage their symptoms. When the count is high, it means that there's a lot of pollen in the air, which can trigger allergy symptoms for some people.
The count can vary depending on various factors, such as the time of day, the weather, and the season. For example, it’s often highest in the early morning, on dry and windy days, and during the spring and summer months when plants are actively growing and producing pollen.
How to Prevent Allergies to Pollen?
Allergies will last as long as an allergen is present and seasonal allergies can be a frustrating and uncomfortable experience. However, there are several ways to limit exposure to pollen and reduce allergy triggers. Consider the following tips for preventing pollen allergies:
- Check the pollen count regularly: Keep track of the count in your area and plan your activities accordingly. On days when the count is high, consider staying indoors as much as possible, especially during peak pollen hours.
- Keep windows and doors closed: Keep your windows and doors closed, especially during the daytime. If it's warm outside and you need to let some fresh air in, use an air conditioner with a HEPA filter to help trap pollen particles.
- Take a shower or change clothes after being outdoors: When you come back inside after being outdoors, take a shower to wash off any pollen that may have accumulated on your skin and hair. If you can't take a shower, at least change your clothes and wash your face and hands.
- Wear a mask: Consider wearing a mask, especially when doing outdoor activities like gardening or mowing the lawn. Look for masks with a high-efficiency filter, or use a cloth mask that covers your nose and mouth.
- Use air purifiers: Consider using an air purifier with a HEPA filter in your home or office to help remove pollen particles from the air.
- Avoid contact with pets that have been outdoors: Pets can also bring pollen into your home, so it's a good idea to wipe them down with a damp towel or bathe them after they've been outside.
- Take allergy medications: Over-the-counter (OTC) allergy medications like antihistamines, decongestants, and nasal saline sprays can help relieve allergy symptoms. Talk to your doctor or allergist to find out which medications are right for you.
When to See a Doctor for Pollen Allergies
If you experience any of the following, it may be a good idea to see a doctor for pollen allergies if:
- You have never been diagnosed with allergies before and are experiencing hay fever symptoms such as sneezing, itchy eyes, or congestion during allergy season.
- Your allergy symptoms are interfering with your daily life, such as affecting your ability to work, go to school, or enjoy outdoor activities.
- You’re not sure what you’re allergic to and need to identify the specific allergen triggering your symptoms.
- OTC allergy medications are not effective in managing your symptoms.
- You have worsening allergic and asthma symptoms during allergy season.
- You experience severe symptoms such as difficulty breathing, wheezing, or chest tightness, which may indicate an allergic reaction or asthma attack.
Remember, it's always better to err on the side of caution and seek medical advice if you’re unsure about your symptoms or if they are causing you distress. An allergist can help diagnose and manage your pollen allergies.
How Are Pollen Allergies Diagnosed?
A proper diagnosis can help you identify the specific allergen causing your symptoms and develop a personalized treatment plan. The best way to get your diagnosis is by seeing a specialist. Here are the various methods allergists use to diagnose pollen allergies.
Physical Examination and Medical History
During a physical examination, an allergist will examine your nose, throat, and eyes for signs of allergic inflammation. They may also ask you about your medical history, including any allergies you have when you experience symptoms, and what triggers your symptoms.
Skin testing is a common method used to diagnose pollen allergies. During this test, an allergist will prick your skin with a small amount of pollen extract and observe the reaction. If you’re allergic to the pollen, you’ll develop a small, itchy bump at the site of the prick. Skin tests can be an uncomfortable experience.
Blood tests, such as the RAST (radioallergosorbent test) or ImmunoCAP test, can also be used to diagnose pollen allergies. Blood testing measures the level of allergy-related antibodies in your blood. While blood tests are less sensitive than skin tests, they may be used if skin testing is not possible, such as if you’re taking medications that could interfere with the results.
At-Home Allergy Testing
At-home allergy testing is a convenient and easy alternative to other methods of allergy testing. This type of allergy testing involves using an at-home allergy test kit, such as the one provided by Wyndly. These kits use a small blood sample and measure the levels of specific antibodies in the blood. These tests can be done from the comfort of your home and don’t require as much time as skin prick tests.
How to Treat Pollen Allergies?
While pollen allergies can be frustrating to deal with, there are several available options to treat your allergies. The right option will depend on the severity of your symptoms and other factors, so it's important to speak with a healthcare provider to determine the best approach for your individual needs. Here are some common treatments for pollen allergies:
One of the most common treatments for pollen allergies is OTC medications. These can be taken without a prescription and are available at most drugstores. OTC medications can be effective but only temporarily manage symptoms. Some of the most common OTC medications you can use to reduce symptoms include:
- Antihistamines: These block the effects of histamine, which is released by the body in response to an allergen. Histamine is what causes symptoms like sneezing, itching, and watery eyes. Examples of OTC antihistamines include loratadine (Claritin), cetirizine (Zyrtec), and fexofenadine (Allegra).
- Decongestants: These help relieve nasal congestion and sinus pressure. Examples of OTC decongestants include pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) and phenylephrine (Sudafed PE). It's important to note that decongestants can raise blood pressure and should not be used by people with certain health conditions, such as heart disease or glaucoma.
- Nasal Spray: These can help reduce inflammation in the nasal passages and relieve symptoms like sneezing and congestion. Examples of OTC nasal sprays include fluticasone (Flonase), triamcinolone (Nasacort), and budesonide (Rhinocort).
If you have severe pollen allergies and OTC medications don't provide enough relief, a doctor may prescribe stronger medications. These may include:
- Steroid sprays: These work to reduce inflammation in the nasal passages and are available by prescription. Examples include mometasone (Nasonex) and fluticasone propionate (Veramyst).
- Leukotriene modifiers: These are medications that help reduce the effects of leukotrienes, which are chemicals released by the body in response to allergens. Examples include montelukast (Singulair) and zafirlukast (Accolate).
- Allergy immunotherapy: Allergy immunotherapy is a long-term treatment option that involves regular exposure to allergens through allergen extracts. Over time, the body builds up a tolerance to the allergen, and symptoms are reduced.
Sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT) is a newer form of immunotherapy that involves placing allergy tablets or drops under the tongue. Sublingual immunotherapy contains small amounts of the allergens you are allergic to, and over time, the body builds up a tolerance to the allergen. Eventually this results in long-term allergy relief.
Take Our Allergy Assessment
If you suspect you may have pollen allergies, or don’t have an effective method of relief for your allergy symptoms start by taking our allergy assessment. Our doctors will help you identify what you’re allergic to and create a personalized plan for your allergies to get you long-term relief.