Spring is considered by many as the season of beauty, joy and happiness. But for 10+ millions of Americans it is synonymous with a runny nose, watery eyes and an itchy throat. Well, the beginning of spring is the time when the cold season meets the allergy season; there isn't anything that can be done about it. Or is there? How does one survive the pollen tempest all the way from spring through summer to fall? Read on to get insights, tips and how-to ideas for the season of foliage and bloom (and virtually any other season since there are so many plants in your country alone!)
What and Why
Simply put, an allergy is the defense reaction the immune system demonstrates when your body comes in contact with a harmful substance like a virus or bacteria. Unfortunately, sometimes milder substances like pollen - a fine yellow powder that serves the purpose of plant fertilization - can trigger a similar reaction that can range from slight discomfort to severe life-threatening conditions.
Allergy or Cold?
The symptoms of pollen allergy usually include a runny nose or nasal congestion, an itchy throat, eyes and skin, sneezing and/or coughing, wheezing, stomach ache, fatigue, irritability, and hives. Pollen can also aggravate the condition of those suffering from asthma. Generally, the season of pollen allergy starts in spring and continues all the way through summer to fall, but these days spring is coming earlier, so it's sometimes difficult to say whether it's an allergy or a cold you are suffering from. First of all, if you notice that for a few years your body is demonstrating cold symptoms in approximately the same period of time, it may be a reason to see an allergologist. Here's a basic memento for you: if your symptoms start from the nose and progress upwards, it's an allergy; if they start with an itch in the throat and move downwards, it's a cold. Unfortunately, there is always a chance you got double hit with both conditions at once!
Pollen and Food Allergies: Cross-Reaction
Since pollen is the reproductive grains that are used by plants for self- or cross-fertilization, allergy symptoms can appear if pollen-allergic people eat certain foods, especially raw fruit and vegetables. This process is called oral allergy or pollen-food syndrome and is caused by the cross-reaction of allergens found both in pollen and in food. Here are a few surprising examples of cross-reacting pollens and foods:
- Birch pollen: apples, kiwi, peaches, pears, plums; carrots, celery; almonds, hazelnuts.
- Grass pollen: oranges, peaches, melons; celery, tomatoes.
- Ragweed pollen: bananas, melons; cucumbers, zucchini; sunflower seeds.
However, people can usually eat food containing cross-allergens in cooked form because the allergens get distorted and are no longer recognized by their immune system. But the allergens in certain foods like celery or nuts are not impacted by cooking, so they'd better be avoided in cooked form as well. Reactions towards spices are rare.
Remember also that an allergy can appear at any time of your life: if you've enjoyed your chamomile tea with honey since you were 5 years old, you shouldn't ignore the symptoms of allergy that may suddenly appear after another cup of your favorite drink when you are 20 or even 45.
Not So Healthy
Some products that are widely considered as healthy can inflict misery upon allergic people because their pollen content is not always obvious. Chamomile tea, honey, or propolis may cause a severe allergic reaction. Remember: you won't find a pollen warning on the label, so you'll have to work your logic!
Symptoms and Reactions
If you experience oral allergy syndrome, pay attention to how far the reaction progresses: if the symptoms are confined to the mouth cavity and subside quickly after the allergen-containing food is swallowed or removed from the mouth, no treatment is usually necessary. But if the symptoms persist and the reaction progresses beyond the mouth, the food may be considered an anaphylaxis risk. You should consult your allergist and even consider having an auto-injector with epinephrine on you at all times in order to be able to cut the reaction short.
Count Your Pollen
Today many meteorologists, as well as software companies, are doing their best to equip people suffering from allergies with the most precise data on where and when they can expect a spike in the pollen count. There's good news: even if you hear that the pollen count is high, you might still stay unaffected, because the pollen you are allergic to is not in high concentration. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true: if the pollen count is low, you can't feel completely safe, because it might be YOUR pollen all around.
Which is Your Pollen Kryptonite?
You can identify the allergen you have to beware of by having a skin test done. It is also called a scratch test because a doctor scratches your skin and applies various allergens to the scratch, or injects them underneath your skin to observe the reaction and draw conclusions. It's very important that you learn your allergens because in this way you will be able to prevent a potentially harmful or life-threatening allergic reaction.
Don't brush off the questions the doctor might ask you; try to give a most detailed answer because it can help identify the culprit more precisely. So, before going to an allergist, try to remember if you've eaten anything unusual, if you've worked outdoors a lot, or if you have come in contact with anything that irritated your eyes or skin.
Allergy First-Aid Kit
The most effective allergy treatment is avoidance; unfortunately, it is not always possible to lock yourself in and sit tight hoping the allergy season will end sooner this year. This is why you have to rely on anti-histamines, steroids or other medications while the season of bloom is in full swing and use immune therapy to desensitize the allergic response for the next year.
So, antihistamines are good when it comes to stopping your nose from running and your whole poor self from itching. However, you shouldn't use them for more than 3 days - antihistamines often lead to a rebound effect, which means that if you use them too much, your symptoms may become even worse! There's another thing you should be aware of: older antihistamines can cause drowsiness, so you have to read the package carefully before you take any of the drugs.
Corticosteroid sprays can relieve your congested nose, but the effect is not so quick - sometimes you have to wait for a few days before your nose stops running.
Eyedrops are effective for watery and itchy eyes, and they kick in very fast (in about 15 to 20 minutes)! But there's a side-effect, too - sometimes eye drops can cause stinging or a headache.
The best tip is to start taking anti-allergy drugs one or two weeks ahead of the pollen season. This tip works even better if you figure out when your own symptoms were at their worst last year; e.g.: if the peak of your allergy was in the middle of April, start taking medications a few days before March ends. It is a good idea to adapt the method to the current meteorologic situation: if there is a spell of warm weather at the end of winter, synchronize your preventive treatment with it. But before you do, consult your allergist to choose the best medication option for you.
The immune therapy we mentioned above consists in taking allergy shots or sublingual tablets (work for grass and ragweed allergies) that enhance your body resistance. Remember though: if you want to be ahead of your allergy, a couple of weeks won't do the trick - both types of medication must be started at least 12 weeks before the anticipated beginning of your allergy season.
Ward Off Pollen Intruders
If you can't abstain from spending ample time outdoors, consider wearing a filter dust mask. Wear glasses or sunglasses to protect your eyes, too. Take a shower, wash your hair and change your clothes immediately upon arrival back home to prevent pollen from getting inside. Shut all windows; use an air conditioner instead of a fan to let fresh air without nasty pollen grains in. Take your shoes off and ask your guests to do the same. Get yourself a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter that traps over 99.99% of particles from the air. And try not to yield to the temptation to line-dry your laundry in the warm sunny weather - your clothes and sheets will only collect pollen while hanging outside!
We hope we managed to provide you with every necessary fact and tip on pollen allergy and this year's spring, summer and fall will run as smooth and pleasant as possible for you!