Spring is in the air, and so are billions of tiny pollen particles from blooming plants, grasses, and budding trees that trigger allergy symptoms in more than 50 million people every year, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
The yellow, powdery dust covering everything from cars to patios this time of year is as much a signature of the season as the chorus of birds and the bursting colorful landscapes. But contrary to common misperceptions, this yellow pollen is not responsible for triggering for peoples’ sneezing, runny noses, and itchy eyes. Nurse Practitioner, Clint Shedd, DNP, RN, FNP-BC, said the real culprits are the microscopic grains of pollen that are not visible.
“Pine pollen is what causes the clouds of yellow dust that you see outside,” said Dr. Shedd. “But its particles are too large to be allergenic to most people. Pollen from hardwood trees, grasses and weeds that are light, dry, and carried by wind are what most often causes allergy symptoms.”
The good news is that there is a lot that people can do to ease their suffering. Dr. Shedd shares some helpful information and tips for surviving spring allergy season.
What makes spring particularly difficult for allergy sufferers?
People are exposed to potential allergens all year-long without ever knowing it. Most of the time, these allergens are not problematic. What makes spring particularly challenging is the compounding effect of irritants from a variety of other sources. The warm, moist conditions creates the ideal environment for things like mold, dust mites, and cockroaches that can trigger both asthma and allergies. At the same time, trees, trees, grasses, and weeds are starting to bloom and release pollen into the atmosphere. If you consider your allergies a bucket and it’s already three-quarters full with the allergen exposures that humans normally experience year-round, and then you add pollen on top of that, the proverbial bucket eventually overflows and you develop symptoms.
Georgia’s allergy season also lasts longer than in other parts of the country due to its climate and abundance of tress. ‘Peak season’ lasts 10-months and runs between late February and November.
What causes the irritation?
Pollen grains carry 30-40 different proteins on their exterior that are necessary for successful pollination. When pollen grains are breathed in through the nasal passages or come in contact with the membranes of the eye, the immune system mistakenly interprets these proteins as ‘foreign bodies’ and immediately goes into hyper-drive to rid the body of these otherwise harmless substances. It releases a special class of antibodies to attack the allergens, which, in turn, sets off a series of chemical reactions designed to protect the body from infection. Histamines are among the chemicals released into the blood stream during this process and are responsible for triggering the symptoms – the runny nose, swelling, redness, and itchiness – that many experience during pollen season.
What can people do to reduce their exposure to pollen?
There isn’t much you can do about the daily pollen count or the air quality outside, but there are several things that people can do to reduce your exposure to these irritants. If you are sensitive to pollen, limit your time outdoors as much as possible. As soon as you come home, take off your shoes and change your clothes to limit the pollen and other allergens that you take inside with you. Keep the windows of your home shut and run the air conditioner to continuously recirculate the air inside your home. HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters can also be helpful in filtering out dust mites, pet dander, and other allergens from the air inside your home. Wash your hair at the end of the day and frequently wash your hands and face. Saline lavages, or saltwater nasal rises can also be helpful in flushing irritants out of the nasal passages.
When are allergies more than a minor irritation?
For most people, over-the-counter medications like nasal sprays and antihistamines can help alleviate allergy symptoms like runny noses, watery eyes, sneezing and itching.
But when an adult or child has symptoms that can’t be managed by medicine or avoidance tactics and their symptoms are interfering with their lives and their ability to work, they should consult a specialist, who can help determine exactly what they are allergic to and develop an effective management plan.
Available treatments options for severe allergy sufferers?
For the minority of patients who have severe allergies or asthma triggered by allergies that can’t be controlled with medication and behavioral methods, allergy shots can be very beneficial.
The allergy shots contain a serum of the actual protein of whatever is prompting the patient’s allergic response. The serum is injected into the back of a patient’s arm and contains a very small quantity of the protein that is gradually increased over time. By introducing the proteins it modifies the patient’s immune system and down regulates their allergic response to those proteins over time, but it doesn’t happen overnight.
Dr. Clint Shedd, DNP, RN, FNP-BC, earned his Doctorate of Nursing Practice and his Masters of Nursing from the Georgia Health Sciences University. His background is in critical care, pulmonary and allergy medicine.