Despite being one of the most common allergens in North America, ragweed pollen doesn’t have to keep you indoors during late summer and early fall. By understanding the causes, symptoms, and potential treatments for this allergy, you can reduce your exposure and alleviate your allergic reactions.
What Is Ragweed?
Ragweed is a species of flowering plant found throughout the east, midwest, and southwest of the United States. A member of the aster family, ragweed is commonly found in locations like sidewalks, cracked pavement, and roadsides. While some people simply see it as another wild plant, others associate it with unwelcome allergy symptoms.
What Is a Ragweed Allergy?
A ragweed allergy is an allergic sensitivity to ragweed pollen. Like other flowering plants, ragweed releases pollen as part of its natural reproductive process. And just like other types, this pollen is allergenic - meaning it triggers an allergic reaction in some sensitive individuals.
The proteins found in ragweed pollen particles are particularly allergenic to individuals with allergic rhinitis and hay fever. Ragweed pollen is misidentified by the immune system as a threat upon entering the airways and attacked by the same type of immune response responsible for fighting off colds and viruses.
Being so prevalent throughout North America, ragweed is considered one of the most common causes of seasonal pollen allergy symptoms. It's estimated that roughly 15 percent of Americans deal with this allergy each year.
What Does Ragweed Look Like?
When people use the word 'ragweed', they aren't always referring to the same plant. This is a category of many different species with unique characteristics. Appearance may vary from region to region and also depends on the season. Most ragweed looks jointed and bushy with fern-like leaves.
Plants typically grow between one and five feet in height, with their stems being green and frizzled, and top finely divided into elongated blooms. It's usually pretty easy to spot ragweed through its green-yellow flowers that reveal themselves from late summer to early fall.
But even if you don’t spot any ragweed near your home, don't think that means you're in the clear from a potential reaction. Ragweed pollen is a very light airborne substance, capable of being carried for miles. You may still come across this allergen and experience symptoms in areas not known to have much growth.
When Is Ragweed Allergy Season?
Ragweed allergy season refers to the period during which pollen levels are highest and people with sensitivities to this plant are most likely to experience symptoms. This season usually lasts from late August until early November but can vary dramatically depending on your specific region.
Places like the Midwest and Southwest are known for having longer allergy seasons, sometimes lasting longer than three months. In areas with shorter growing periods, the ragweed season usually peaks between August and mid-September.
It's important to note the difference between ragweed allergy season and general hay fever allergy season because the two aren't the same. While ragweed pollen levels increase in the late summer and can persist until the first frost, other types of pollen begin circulating in the air much earlier, usually in March and April. Trees and grass are the first to pollinate every year, while ragweed plants and other weeds are among the last.
What Are the Symptoms of Ragweed Allergies?
Ragweed pollen allergy symptoms are usually very similar to allergy symptoms from other types of pollen. Pollen allergy symptoms are generally centralized to areas along the respiratory system such as the throat and nose, although skin and other points of contact can become affected.
Airborne allergens like ragweed most easily enter the airways, inflaming the tissue and contributing to a cascade of effects that manifest as what many people consider traditional spring allergy symptoms.
Some of the most common symptoms associated with ragweed allergies include:
- Runny nose
- Itchy eyes
- Postnasal drip
- Coughing and wheezing
- Swelling and irritation of the throat
- Asthma-like symptoms such as chest tightness, shortness of breath, and difficulty breathing
- Fatigue due to lack of sleep
What Causes a Ragweed Pollen Allergy?
When an individual allergic to ragweed pollen is exposed to it, their body perceives it as a foreign invader and responds by attacking the invading particles with an immune system defense response. The immune system releases chemicals like histamine, that cause inflammation throughout the body.
It's this inflammation that is responsible for the classic symptoms that many people associate with pollen allergies, like itchy eyes, sneezing, and congestion.
How Long Do Ragweed Allergies Last?
Ragweed allergies are seasonal, occurring in conjunction with the growth patterns of the ragweed plant. Typically, ragweed allergies start in late summer when the plants produce pollen and continue until the first frost kills off the plant. After that, symptoms usually subside until next year's growing season.
Individuals with an allergy to ragweed pollen see their symptoms worsen with exposure. Once no longer exposed, most people find that the effects of the allergens dissipate within a couple of days.
How to Prevent Allergies to Ragweed Pollen?
There's no way of preventing the reality of having a ragweed pollen allergy altogether - that comes down to uncontrollable factors like genetics. But there are several things that you can do to mitigate your chances of experiencing severe symptoms.
- Watching pollen counts: Pollen levels fluctuate throughout the year, but also on a day-to-day basis. It's wise to keep an eye on daily counts and avoid going outside on days when they're high if possible.
- Avoidance: If you know that certain places or environments increase your exposure to ragweed pollen, consider avoiding them. This might include fields with tall grasses and wildflowers, parks with lots of trees and weeds, or any other areas where you can anticipate pollen exposure.
- Keep windows closed: Being an airborne allergen, it isn't hard for pollen to make its way into your home via open windows and doors. Try to keep them closed as much as possible, opting for other forms of air circulation, such as an AC unit.
- Protective clothing: Wearing a mask, long sleeves, and long pants can help reduce the amount of pollen particles that make contact with your skin or eyes.
- Clean regularly: Pollen can easily accumulate on surfaces like windows, furniture, and clothing. Make sure to clean regularly and vacuum often to reduce your exposure as much as possible.
How Are Ragweed Allergies Diagnosed?
Ragweed allergies can be diagnosed in several ways. The two most common are skin prick and blood tests. Skin prick testing is a manual process, where a doctor pricks the skin with allergens to observe the reaction. Blood tests are generally easier to tolerate.
In most cases, doctors only need a single sample to measure an individual's IgE antibodies and confirm a diagnosis. This can be taken through a home testing kit from Wyndly. At-home allergy testing is a convenient option for those who want to avoid long doctor's office wait times and the uncomfortable skin irritation skin prick tests can cause.
How to Treat Ragweed Allergies?
Ragweed allergies can be controlled and managed in a variety of ways, not all of which work for everyone. Some provide effective short-term relief, while others can provide long-term relief. Take a look at some of the common treatments listed below.
Over-the-counter (OTC) medications are some of the most common treatments for ragweed allergies. Popular options include antihistamines, decongestants, and nasal sprays that help reduce inflammation in the nasal passages and relieve symptoms like sneezing, itching eyes, runny nose, and congestion. While OTC medications can be effective at providing short-term relief, they only temporarily manage symptoms and don’t treat the root cause of your allergies.
Allergy immunotherapy can reduce your sensitivity to the allergens you’re allergic to and provide long-term relief from your symptoms. It involves introducing gradually increasing doses of an allergen extract over a period of time, such as through regular shots or sublingual drops or tablets.
Allergy shots are the most well-known form of immunotherapy. They are administered on a weekly or monthly basis over multiple years and are most successful if the patient sticks to a consistent schedule. Allergy shots should only be given with a doctor’s supervision, as there is always potential for side effects or a severe allergic reaction.
Sublingual immunotherapy, sometimes referred to as SLIT, is a newer approach to immunotherapy that's quickly gaining popularity for its non-invasive form of treatment. Instead of shots, this form is taken in the form of drops or tablets placed under the tongue. Over time, your body becomes desensitized and stops reacting when exposed to your allergy triggers.
The advantages of SLIT are that it's painless and less likely to cause side effects than traditional immunotherapy. Since it is less likely to cause severe allergic reactions than allergy shots, sublingual immunotherapy can be safely taken from the comfort of your own home.
When to See a Doctor for Ragweed Pollen Allergies?
If you are unsure what you are allergic to or you want a more effective treatment plan you should make an appointment with an allergy doctor. Allergists can help you pinpoint what's causing your allergies and figure out a plan of action to treat them.
Take Our Allergy Assessment and Get Treatment Today
If you're looking to get long-term relief from your ragweed allergies, Wyndly can help. Our allergy doctors will identify what you’re allergic to and create a personalized sublingual immunotherapy treatment plan to get you the long-term relief you deserve. Take our quick online allergy assessment today and see how Wyndly can help you!