An Overview of Pollen Allergies

How to Diagnose and Manage Your Symptoms

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Pollen allergies, which are also often described as seasonal allergies, can cause symptoms such as sniffling, sneezing, and watery eyes. There are many types of pollen that come from trees, grass, weeds, and other plants. Trees typically pollinate in the spring, grasses in the summer, and weeds in the fall. However, this is not a hard and fast rule, as some species of plants pollinate outside of their expected seasons.

Allergy medications and allergy shots can help prevent the effects of a pollen allergy and make you more comfortable.

Symptoms

Pollen allergies are more common in older children and adults. Young children under the age of two are more likely to have pet or dust mite allergies, with pollen allergies occurring around school age. This is usually a lifetime problem, although the symptoms and severity can change over the years. Some people do not realize that they have a pollen allergy until moving or taking a trip to a location with increased pollen exposure.

Symptoms of pollen allergies can last all day or can be worse at certain times of the day. The effects will typically begin within an hour after exposure to pollen.

Common symptoms of a pollen allergy include:

  • Allergic rhinitis: Nasal congestion, runny nose, Itchy nose, post nasal drip, and/or sneezing
  • Itchy, red, and/or watery eyes
  • Coughing
  • A red or irritated nose from frequently blowing your nose
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue

Some people experience symptoms of a pollen allergy from being outdoors or in a grassy or wooded area for a long time. But, for others, just being in the car or even indoors can trigger the effects of a pollen allergy after a few minutes of exposure.

Associated Symptoms

If you have asthma, a pollen-induced allergic reaction can trigger an asthma attack, characterized by coughing, wheezing, or shortness of breath. You may find that you need to use your inhaler more often during your allergic season.

Pollen allergies may also be associated with contact urticaria, which means that after touching an allergen, you may develop a rash, itching, or hives on your skin.

Causes

Pollen is most prevalent in the springtime when the pollen from weeds, grass, plants, and trees are airborne. Pollination usually occurs shortly after leaves grow, but it can also occur before and during leaf development. When trees are full of leaves, which is generally in late spring, there is not as much pollen in the air.

However, there is some variability, and not all plants pollinate at the same time. For example, some elm trees can pollinate in the fall and some juniper species pollinate in fall and winter.

There are a number of plants that can trigger your allergic reaction if you have a pollen allergy. Trees and plants that may trigger symptoms of a pollen allergy include:

  • Hickory
  • Birch
  • Oak
  • Elm
  • Ash
  • Beech
  • Cottonwood
  • Sycamore
  • Maple
  • Juniper/cypress
  • Olive
  • Walnut
  • Pine
  • Acacia
  • Alder
  • Willow
  • Grass
  • Ragweed

Cedar Fever

This reaction applies most often to people residing in central Texas. Cedar trees are prevalent in this area and pollinate in the winter months, usually between November and January. Cedar trees are the most allergenic tree in central Texas. Though the name suggests a fever, those allergic to the pollen will have typical allergy symptoms.

Non-Pollinating Plants

You may have a plant-induced allergic reaction that is not pollen-related. Keep in mind that if you have a reaction to plants that don't have pollen, there could be another reason for your reaction, such as mold.

Pine trees, for example,produce copious amounts of pollen. (It's the green/yellow "powder" that covers the cars and streets in neighborhoods where pine trees grow.) However, pine pollen tends not to be a major cause of allergic rhinitis because the pollen is relatively heavy and falls directly to the ground. Pine pollen doesn't tend to blow around in the air much, which is how pollen causes allergy symptoms.

Heredity

Pollen allergies have a hereditary component. People who have pollen allergies may have family members with hay fever, food allergies, or asthma. There have been genes linked to pollen allergies, but most people who have pollen allergies do not have genetic testing as part of the diagnostic evaluation.

Keep in mind that you might be allergic to some types of pollen, and not others. You might not have the same timing as someone else when it comes to your pollen allergies—and even members of the same family can experience an exacerbation of their pollen allergies at different times of the year.

Diagnosis

Your doctor can help in diagnosing which type of pollen you are allergic to. In addition to your symptoms and their timing, diagnostic tests can be helpful in pinpointing your pollen allergy as well.

Allergy Testing

Allergy tests include skin tests, also called skin prick tests or scratch tests. During this procedure, your doctor places small needles with plant and pollen extracts on your skin. The skin test can be applied on your back or on your forearm.

After the small prick is placed on your skin, there is a 20-minute wait. If you are feeling itchy and develop a reaction similar to a mosquito bite, then you may be considered to have a positive test.

Blood Tests

Blood tests can measure IgE, is an antibody that is involved in most allergies, including pollen allergies. This can be helpful because symptoms of a pollen allergy are similar to the symptoms of a sinus infection.

Elevated IgE levels do not help in identifying which type of pollen you are allergic to, but this helps determine that your symptoms could be related to an allergy rather than an infection.

Seasonal Allergies Doctor Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next doctor's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

Doctor Discussion Guide Man

Nasal Swabs

A nasal swab test can help differentiate an infectious cause of nasal symptoms from nasal allergies. Infectious causes would be expected to indicate the presence of neutrophils (bacterial or viral infection) or lymphocytes (viral infection), while the presence of eosinophils is more suggestive of an allergic process.

Treatment

It can be hard to avoid pollen. Some people make a drastic lifestyle change and move to a region where there are fewer trees, grassy areas, and plants. But even the plants that are present in crowded cities may induce pollen allergies.

If you can't avoid pollen, there are medications that can help your symptoms.

How to Avoid Pollen

There are a few ways to decrease your exposure to pollen. Reducing your exposure can help minimize your symptoms.

  • Limit outdoor activity in the early morning hours, especially from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m
  • Drive with the windows closed to prevent exposure to pollen
  • Sleep with the windows shut to limit pollen entering the home
  • Avoid hanging laundry outside to dry
  • After being outdoors, take a quick shower and change your clothes so pollen isn’t on your body for too long
  • Avoid being outdoors if it is windy or if pollen counts are high

Pollen Counts

Your local area may measure pollen counts and provide a daily or weekly report. A device that collects pollen is placed in a location (like at the top of a building), and the pollen is examined on a regular basis. Depending on your location, a report may be available regarding the pollen count (low, medium, or high). some reports also include the type (or types) of pollen that is prevalent as well.

Allergy Medications

If you have a tree allergy, it helps to start taking medication a few weeks prior to the season starting. This will help mediate your symptoms even before your allergy season starts.

Over-the-counter and prescription antihistamines can help prevent your symptoms when taken ahead of your pollen exposure. Some people use antihistamine eye drops if red, itchy, or watery eyes are a major problem.

Talk to your doctor about which medications to take and how often you should take them.

Do not take your antihistamines for a few days before having an allergy test. The antihistamine prevents the allergic response, which makes your test difficult to interpret.

Allergy immunotherapy

Allergy shots deliver a small amount of your allergen (pollen) to allow your immune system to improve your tolerance of the substance, reducing your allergic response. Allergy shots are given over the course of three to five years and can subdue your allergies for several years after finishing treatment. However, symptoms can return over time.

Sublingual Immunotherapy (SLIT)

Sublingual immunotherapy is a treatment in which drops of medication are placed under your tongue. It not available for prevention of tree pollen allergies, but it is a treatment option that is available for grass, ragweed, and dust mite allergies.

Predisposition to Food Allergies

Tree pollen can resemble proteins that are constituents of several pitted fruits. For example, if you are found to be allergic to the birch tree, that allergen strongly cross-reacts with apple, peach, plum, celery, cherry, apricots, kiwi, hazelnuts, almonds, carrots, and some other fruits and nuts.

Symptoms of this type of allergy can include itchiness or swelling of the mouth, throat, and lips. The symptoms are usually localized to the mouth area and do not progress to other body parts. If you develop food allergies, you need to talk to your doctor about medications you can take in case you become exposed.

A Word From Verywell

Pollen allergies are fairly common. You may also have other allergies, such as food allergies, along with your pollen allergy. And often, people who have a pollen allergy have asthma too. Because of the seasonal variation in your symptoms, you might not need to take medication all year round.

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