What Exactly Is a Pollen Allergy—and How Do You Know if You Have One?
Here's how to tell if pollen is the cause of your seasonal misery.
It’s that time of year again when talk of pollen allergies reaches a fever pitch. That’s because spring is the time of year when you might experience a pollen allergy—otherwise known as an allergic reaction to the fine powder that emerges in flowering plants or trees and gets transported by birds and insects to help fertilize them.
“All plants use pollen as their way to reproduce seeds,” says Janna Tuck, MD, an allergist in Santa Fe, New Mexico and a spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (ACAAI). “For example, when trees are blooming and look fuzzy and light green, those trees are producing a ton of pollen that’s so small it enters into our respiratory passageways.”
For most people, the emergence of pollen in the air won’t be bothersome. But if you’re allergic to it, you’ll experience pollen allergy symptoms such as watery eyes, runny nose, sore throat, coughing, or wheezing.
Turns out, there are three kinds of pollen that can make people feel utterly miserable, says ACAAI spokesperson Tania Elliott, MD, an allergist in New York City.
“Pollen from trees is responsible for spring allergies that usually begin from March to May, and then pollen from grasses is responsible for allergies from late May until early August,” she says. “Pollen from weeds and ragweed is responsible for fall allergies that start mid-August and can last until the first frost.”
If you’re wondering if you have a pollen allergy, one way to tell is if your symptoms are consistent.
“If every single year at the same time, say March, you have these same symptoms of a runny nose or watery eyes, you may have a pollen allergy,” Dr. Tuck says. “Maybe you thought you had a cold, but it’s likelier that you have an allergy of some kind.”
If you’re starting to feel any symptoms, your first step is to make an appointment with an allergist to help find out what might be causing them. That allergist may get you started on an allergy medication to alleviate those symptoms and manage your day-to-day life.
“I always tell patients that while most pollen allergies aren’t dangerous, they can produce severe symptoms and alter your quality of life,” Dr. Tuck says. “That’s why it’s helpful to see an allergist and get tested.”
However, if you have asthma take note: “Your symptoms can be quite severe during allergy season,” Dr. Tuck says. “You may have difficulty breathing and may experience more coughing and wheezing. If you have asthma, be sure to meet with an allergist.” Allergy shots can seriously reduce symptoms in allergy-related asthma, she adds.
Finally, to best prepare you for the pollen onslaught, check area pollen counts, which are routinely shared as part of most weather stories on your local news and via online tools. And definitely take a look at those numbers if you’re planning on traveling when pollen counts are at their peak.
“These pollen counts are based on historic information and statistics, but they can be a great help in terms of knowing what to expect,” Dr. Tuck adds.
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