Don't let pollen allergies get the best of you. Find out how to get your pollen allergies under control.
Think of pollen as the plant world's equivalent of sperm. It's a powdery, often yellow substance released from the male part of plant flowers, called the stamen (and yes, even some nonflowering trees, like maples, develop flowers in spring to assist in the reproductive process), then carried by the wind, bees, birds and animals to the female part of the plant, called the pistil. Voilà—fertilization. Pollen can fertilize the same plant it came from or other plants within reach.
Why does pollen make me sneeze and my eyes itch?
In an allergic person, the body mounts an immune response to the allergen, which causes symptoms, explains Dr. Sandy Kapur, president of the Canadian Society of Allergy and Clinical Immunology in Halifax. "Nasal and eye irritations are the most common symptoms," says Dr. Kapur, "but that can extend to the lower airways, and you see symptoms like asthma—sneezing, coughing, tightness in the chest—but not as commonly." Those annoying symptoms are caused by the body's release of histamine, which signals your sinuses to produce mucus and your eyes to produce tears in an effort to expel the allergen.
Are some seasons more allergy-causing than others?
In a word: yes. Pollen levels vary each year depending on how cold the winter has been, how warm the spring is, how quickly the weather changes, precipitation, humidity levels and other variables that impact growing season—larger plants, after all, create more pollen. Even more variables include the type of pollen, where you live—meaning that you may sneeze more or less after moving to a new city or another part of your current town—and time of year.
Can I control my symptoms without meds?
Avoiding pollen is the best way to alleviate seasonal symptoms: Close the windows in your home and car and use air-conditioning, for starters. But what about when you have to go to work? And who wants to stay inside all summer? You don't have to, says Bryce Wylde, alternative health practitioner and associate medical director of P3, a Toronto integrative health-care facility. "But when you get home," he says, "the first thing you want to do is put your coat in a separate closet, throw your clothes into the laundry and, without going into your bedroom, get into a cold shower to wash all the pollen off." Don't forget your schnoz: Pollen can get trapped in your nasal turbinates and irritate your nose for hours. Wylde advises rinsing the pollen from your nasal passages with a nasal irrigator, such as a Neti Pot. And especially for those who also struggle with dust-mite allergies, he suggests putting your pillow in the dryer on high for 10 minutes before going to bed "to burn off anything that's in there."
Do over-the-counter allergy drugs really work?
They're a good start, says Dr. Kapur. Try taking an over-the-counter nondrowsy antihistamine once a day. "If your symptoms aren't controlled with that," he says, "you need to see a physician to get prescription medication." That medication might be an intranasal steroid spray or antihistamine eyedrops. Longer term, once you've been tested to clearly identify your allergies, you might opt for immunotherapy, which gradually trains your immune system to stop treating pollen as a viral invader. Immunotherapy has been around for a while in the form of so-called allergy shots; it's also available in a tablet that you place under your tongue once a day. The sublingual tablets are currently available for grass and ragweed, with more expected in the future.
Are my allergies getting worse?
If you've noticed an increase in itching and hacking, you aren't imagining things. As a result of rising global temperatures, there's more pollen and more allergy-aggravating smog in the air. The upshot? Climate change makes for a nasty double whammy to allergy sufferers in urban areas.