Every spring, your local weatherman talks about pollen counts, but what does that mean? Does he count each pollen grain in the air? Estimate the number by how many sneezing people he runs into every day? Not quite.
The pollen count is taken by a spinning silicone rod that is usually placed somewhere high like a rooftop. Pollen grains that stick to the rod are stained and examined under a microscope to get the day’s count – the number of grains of pollen in a certain amount of air in a set time period, usually 24 hours. Pollen counts change with the weather and time of day. For example, they are usually higher on warm, breezy days and lower on chilly, wet days. Some sources report a total pollen count rather than pollen counts of specific plants. A high total pollen count does not necessarily mean you will have allergy symptoms because the pollen from the plant you are allergic to may not be high.
But hold on, what exactly is pollen? It’s a very fine powder that comes from trees, grasses, flowers and weeds. Wind and birds carry pollen from plant to plant in order to fertilize them. When people who have a pollen allergy inhale that fine powder, they suffer from allergy symptoms. People can be allergic to all different types of pollen. For example, some are only allergic to pollen from trees and others are only allergic to pollen from certain kinds of grasses.
Did you know that plants with brightly colored flowers and sweet smells rarely cause allergy symptoms? This is because insects and birds, rather than wind, usually carry the pollen from these plants.
So, we know what pollen is and how it’s measured, but how does it actually cause people to become red-eyed and sneezing?
Pollen spores in the air enter a person’s body through the nose and throat, causing allergy and asthma symptoms in people who are allergic to them. Asthma is a lung disease that makes it hard to breathe at times. When people with asthma come into contact with something they are allergic or sensitive to, their airways become narrower. This makes it harder for air to get to their lungs and causes symptoms like coughing, wheezing and a feeling of tightness in the chest. The symptoms of pollen allergies include sneezing, runny or stuffy nose, itchy throat or inside of ears, swollen eyelids and itchy eyes, coughing, wheezing and trouble breathing.
Plants that have pollen are most likely to cause allergy symptoms when they begin to flower and the pollen goes into the air. Weeds, trees and grasses are common culprits of allergy symptoms. Weeds usually let go of their pollen in the late summer and fall. Ragweed is the weed most likely to cause symptoms, however, other weeds that let go of pollen and can cause allergy symptoms include burning bush, cocklebur, lamb’s quarter, pigweed, plantain, red sorrel, Russian thistle, sagebrush, mugwort, scales and tumbleweeds. Most trees let go of their pollen in the late winter and early spring. The trees most likely to cause allergy symptoms include ash, aspen, beech, birch, box elder and other maples, cedar, cottonwood, elm, mulberry, oak and willow. Grass pollen is usually released in the late spring and early summer. The grasses most likely to cause allergy symptoms are Bermuda, Johnson, Kentucky, Orchard, Redtop, Rye, Sweet vernal and Timothy.
If you have a pollen allergy, check counts often by looking at the weather section of your local newspaper or going to a weather information website and entering your zip code, especially when you are planning outdoor activities. You should also use the counts to decide if you need to adjust the dose and kind of allergy or asthma medicine you take. Talk to your allergist about how to do this.
To cut down on your contact with pollen, limit your time outdoors when pollen and mold counts are high, wear a dust mask that people like carpenters use when you need to do things like cut the grass or rake leaves, don’t wear your outdoor work clothes in the house because they may have pollen on them, clean and replace air conditioner filters often and use a clothes dryer rather than drying clothes outside where they can collect pollen. If you take a vacation, choose places and times of year when pollen counts won’t be high. Keep in mind, if you have allergies to plants where you live, you may get allergies to different plants within a few years after moving to a new area. Talk to your allergist about your move.
Allergy pills are a quick fix to pollen allergies, however, once you stop taking the pills your symptoms will return. Immunotherapy treatment, more commonly known as allergy shots, can potentially lead to a lasting remission of allergy symptoms. The decision to begin immunotherapy is based on several factors: length of allergy season and severity of symptoms, how well medications and avoiding allergens control allergy symptoms, desire to avoid long-term medication use, time and cost.
If you have any questions or concerns about your allergies, consult an allergist to learn more.