By Michelle Konstantinovsky
It's that time of year again — the sun is
shining, the flowers are blooming and you are sneezing your way through the
first weeks of spring. While the change in season means warmer weather and beautiful
buds, it also means serious allergies for 35 million Americans who suffer from
"The predominant symptoms will be upper respiratory tract-sneezing, itching nose and eyes, runny and congested nose," says Dr. Alan Goldsobel, Stanford University Medical Center Adjunct Associate Clinical Professor, and Allergy and Asthma Associates of Northern California Clinical Practitioner. "Some people may experience cough and wheeze with asthma, and some may become itchy with worsening eczema."
"Children often rub their noses and have a horizontal line across their noses as a result," says Dr. Luke Beno, Pediatrician at Kaiser Permanente Cascade Medical Center in Atlanta, GA. "Also, you may see dark circles and wrinkles under the eyes that get darker during the allergy season."
If you're looking for the culprit responsible for these springtime symptoms, blame pollen, which causes the majority of seasonal sniffling and sneezing. Trees, grasses and weeds release the tiny grains in order to fertilize other plants, but when they end up in our noses, they can wreak havoc.
"One main classification of allergens is either seasonal or perennial," Dr. Goldsobel explains. "Technically, pollen is what is thought of as causing seasonal (spring or fall) allergies, but it depends on the local climate. In the southernmost U.S., it never freezes, and pollen levels are measurable year-round, though most intense in spring and fall."
"Often in Georgia, we can see allergy due to pollen lasting until the first frost of year, which last year was in November," says Dr. Beno.
The immune system recognizes the pollen grains as foreign invaders, and releases antibodies to attack them. This battle releases histamines into the blood, which are chemicals that can trigger symptoms like itchy eyes and a runny nose.
"There are actually three main pollen seasons in the U.S., and different areas peak at different times," Dr. Beno says. "For example, in Georgia, tree pollens peak during the spring, but tree pollen will not peak in the northern part of the U.S. for several months."
Dr. Beno explains that the seasons generally follow the same patterns: from February to May, trees produce the most pollen, from April to August, grasses dominate pollen production, and from July to September, the majority of pollen comes from weeds.
"Temperature has an important effect on the concentration of pollens in the air," says Dr Beno. "Warm air encourages pollen production while cooler temperatures reduce pollination. Other weather conditions affect pollen count, too. Wind and humidity elevate pollen count in the atmosphere and rain dramatically decreases it."
"Generally in the U.S., and in the rest of the northern hemisphere, trees pollinate in the early spring, and grasses later in spring — late April and into June," Dr. Goldsobel says. "Grass pollen is the other very strong spring allergen [which is] all over the U.S. It pollinates at slightly different times depending on the weather."
But what's the number one allergy offender across the board? "Possibly the most prevalent pollen in the U.S. overall is ragweed," Dr. Goldsobel says. "Weeds pollinate in the fall, and [though] ragweed doesn't grow west of the Rocky Mountains, it causes very intense symptoms in the Midwest and East."
"Ragweed alone causes allergy symptoms in 10-20 percent of Americans in late summer," agrees Dr. Beno.
So now that you know what's at the root of your miserable symptoms, what can you do?
Dr. Beno first advises to be wary of reports, and pay attention to your own individual symptoms. "In Georgia, and I suspect much of the South, everything outside is covered in a yellow haze due to pine pollens," he explains. "Most people are not allergic to pine pollen, which can take over a great percentage of reported ‘pollen counts.' However, many of the trees that do produce common allergens bloom at the same time as the pine trees. It really does not matter what the pollen count shows, unless you happen to be allergic to the pollen that is being reported. Just because you may be allergic to cedar does not mean necessarily that you are allergic to beech, or lilac or ragweed."
Dr. Goldsobel suggests a multi-step method for outsmarting spring allergies: "The overall approach to treating allergies is, 1) Avoid the things you are allergic to as much as possible; 2) Medical therapy to manage and control symptoms and complications (antihistamines, decongestants, nasal spray - both steroid and antihistamine); and 3) Immunotherapy, or "allergy shots."
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