Pollen Allergy

Pollen grains from trees, grasses and weeds float through the air in spring, summer and fall – or year-round in areas with mild winters. But on their way to fertilize plants and tree flowers, pollen particles often end up in our noses, eyes, ears and mouths. The result can be sneezing spells, watery eyes, congestion and an itchy throat.

Trees are the first plants to begin their mating process (which, after all, is what pollen is all about), releasing their pollen in late winter and early spring. They’ll be followed by grasses in late spring and summer and by weeds, especially the potent ragweed, in late summer and fall. 

Here’s why pollen drives us crazy – and what you can do to avoid a love-hate relationship with nature. 

Pollen Facts of Life

  • Pollens are tiny male cells sent out by flowering plants to find females. Female plants don’t produce pollen.

  • Pollen that causes allergy tends to be small, light and dry. It is easily spread by wind over long distances. The pollen that gets all over your car or lawn furniture is not as much of an allergy problem as the pollen too small to be seen.

  • Bright-colored flowers actually release less pollen into the air than their drab cousins. Instead they depend on insects to carry pollen from one blossom to another.

  • Airborne pollen concentrations are usually highest early in the day just after the dew dries and on into late morning.

  • There is often a burst of pollen into the air when the wind comes up just before a rainstorm. During and after the rain, however, pollen becomes damp and heavy with moisture, keeping it still and on the ground. 

Tree Tidbits

  • Oak, maple and birch are among the most common tree allergens in the U.S., as well as evergreens such as cedar and juniper.

  • Mountain cedar is an early bloomer in the south – often causing allergies in December in Texas and Oklahoma. It releases so much pollen that it looks like smoke in the air.

  • Some trees, like birch, only release pollen for a couple of weeks each year; others, like eucalyptus, pollinate all year long.

  • If you buy trees for your yard, look for species less likely to cause allergy symptoms, such as crape myrtle, dogwood, pear, plum or redbud. You might also consider female varieties of ash, maple, poplar or willow trees. 

Finding Clean Air

  • During pollen season, close your windows and run the air conditioner at home and in your car.

  • Pollen can come inside on you and your clothing. Change your clothes when you get in and keep pollen off your pillow by showering and washing your hair before going to bed.

  • Dry your laundry indoors rather than outside.

  • Check daily pollen counts, but realize they often represent collections made 24-48 hours earlier. In addition, the amount of pollen it takes to set off symptoms varies considerably from one person to the next.

  • For pollen forecasts at home or across the country, visit the National Allergy Bureau or The Weather Channel (www.weather.com – click on Health). 

Be Prepared

Don’t let pollen catch you off guard. Doctors recommend you begin using allergy medications like antihistamines, nasal corticosteroids or the new sublingual immunotherapy tablets before pollen season begins. Ask your health care provider what’s right for you. 

If you think you have pollen allergy, see a board-certified allergist for testing. Allergy shots (immunotherapy) often provide long-lasting relief for pollen allergy.