The only way to know for sure if a person has pollen allergy is to see a board-certified allergist for allergy testing. The allergist will apply a small amount of diluted allergen to the skin and wait for 15 minutes to see if a raised, itchy, red bump appears. If it does, then the person has an allergy to that pollen or mold. Other tests include a blood test that measures antibodies. These are the substances in the blood that trigger allergic reactions. The patient may have common signs and symptoms if they come in contact with pollen, which may include
- Stuffy or runny nose
- Occasional sneezing
- Itchy nose, eyes or throat
- Slight cough
- Swelling of the eyes
- Pain in the center of the face caused by sinus pressure
- Severe sore throat from irritation due to coughing and sneezing
It can be difficult to tell if symptoms are due to pollen allergy or other conditions, such as a cold. Therefore, see a doctor for a definitive diagnosis. The doctor will complete a physical exam, ask about medical history and symptoms and may perform allergy tests.
What is a pollen allergy?
Plants produce tiny grains of pollen as part of their reproduction process. These powdered yellow grains fertilize other plants of the same species. Pollen spreads from plant to plant by insects or birds. Often, these are fine and light enough to be carried by the wind.
- Airborne pollen produced by certain types of trees, grasses and weeds causes most seasonal allergy symptoms, also called hay fever.
- If a person has a pollen allergy, their body mistakes the pollen for a dangerous substance and triggers an immune response to fight it off.
- This involves the production of inflammatory substances in the body, including histamine, which causes allergy symptoms.
- When there’s lots of pollen in the air, people are more likely to inhale it and experience symptoms. Therefore, pollen allergies tend to be worse at certain times of the year.
- Trees produce airborne pollen each spring and they produce lots of it. Tree pollen season depends on the location. It can start in late winter or early spring.
- Ragweed plants are some of the biggest pollen producers in North America and because they reproduce so quickly, they are hard to control. Peak weed pollen season runs from late summer through early fall.
- Grass is responsible for a lot of seasonal allergy symptoms because it tends to grow widely. Grass pollen season lasts from late spring through early summer.
Who is susceptible to a pollen allergy?
Researchers are still studying the possible causes of pollen allergy. However, studies have shown that a few factors may make a person susceptible to pollen allergy.
- Having a blood relative with allergies or asthma increases the risk of having one or more allergies.
- To complicate the matter more, prolonged exposure to the allergen also plays a role in whether a person develops allergies.
- Even if people have a genetic susceptibility, they may not develop a problem if they manage to avoid the allergen.
Having other diseases
- Patients suffering from asthma, atopic dermatitis or other allergies are more susceptible to pollen allergy.
- If a person is in their 20s, 30s or 40s without allergies, it does not necessarily mean they are allergy-free. Adults can develop allergies to pollen and other triggers even into middle age. In general, the number of individuals suffering from hay fever is increasing in the United States and around the world.
Environment and lifestyle
- Researchers speculate that more airborne pollutants and dust mite populations coupled with less ventilation in homes and workplaces could play a role.
- Unhealthy habits, including poor diet and not enough exercise, may also contribute.
- The hygiene hypothesis is the idea that people live and eat in a relatively sanitary environment, therefore their immune systems don’t have enough work to do. The immune system overreacting to allergens is another possibility.
- Living in a new area with different trees, plants and grasses or adopting a pet may also increase the risk of developing allergies.
How to treat pollen allergies
A few treatment options for pollen allergies are
- Over-the-counter and prescription allergy medications, including antihistamines and anti-inflammatory nasal sprays, can help relieve symptoms.
- If pollen allergies become worse in the early spring for some people, for example, they should start taking allergy medications two weeks before symptoms are at their worst. Talk with the doctor about which medication to take.
- Pre-medicate with an antihistamine or corticosteroid nasal spray two hours before an anticipated allergen exposure. For eye allergies, use eye drops as needed.
- Allergy shots (immunotherapy) often provide long-lasting relief from pollen allergy. Sublingual immunotherapy, also known as oral immunotherapy, is a pill form of immunotherapy and available for grass and ragweed pollen allergies.
Individuals suffering from pollen allergies should use personal room filtration systems that can effectively remove pollen from the air. Pollen measures about 10 to 60 microns in diameter. Most indoor air purifiers can filter out air particles as small as three microns.
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American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology