It really is the worst pollen season ever.
Every spring I tell patients this is the worst pollen season ever and it seems like hyperbole. It really isn’t. Pollen seasons across the world are becoming longer and more severe. Allergy seasons typically vary by region and with changing weather patterns. Florida is unique in that it is a perennial pollen state. Because we rarely, if ever, experience a hard freeze, there are plants pollinating 12 months out of the year. Most of them follow a predictable pollination schedule. Trees begin pollinating in the spring, which in our part of Florida can begin by mid-January. This is followed by grasses, which typically pollinate in the summer. Weeds follow in the fall. In our part of Florida, February through April is the most severe pollen season due to extremely high volumes of tree pollen.
Pollen is the culprit, not just the plant. Pollen carries a plant’s DNA from the stamen, the male part of the plant, to the pistil, the female part of the plant. Pollination allows plants to reproduce. Plants, like flowers, are pollinated by insects moving the pollen from the stamen to the pistil and so are not usually a problem for allergic people. Trees, grasses and weeds release large volumes of pollen particles into the air, which are transported by wind. Some pollen particles successfully pollinate other plants, but the vast majority end up on the ground and all over your car. Plants that wind-pollinate are the ones that wreak havoc on people with allergies. Pollen carried by wind can travel hundreds of miles, which is why removing plants you may be allergic to is not always helpful.
When the mucosal tissues of the nose, eyes and lungs encounter pollen carried by the wind, an allergic response occurs. Allergic rhinitis symptoms include runny nose, sneezing, itchy, watery eyes, an itchy throat and nasal congestion. Allergic asthma symptoms can include wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath. An allergist can help identify what you are allergic to so that you can try to avoid those triggers.
Avoiding pollen is pretty tough, especially in beautiful Florida. I generally recommend that you leave your car and home windows closed all the time, but this is especially important when pollen counts are high. Using a HEPA air filter in your AC and changing it regularly can help minimize the amount of pollen that enters your home. Pollen counts are highest between 5 and 10 a.m. and on dry, windy days, so people with allergies should avoid exercising outdoors then. If you must be outdoors when pollen counts are high, be sure to change clothes and wash your hair before you go to sleep so that pollen from your clothing and hair doesn’t get into your bed. Also beware that pets can bring pollen into the home after being outdoors. Wipe them with a damp cloth when they come back inside and bathe them more frequently in pollen season.
Several medications can help manage allergy symptoms and bring relief:
• Antihistamines are excellent for runny, sneezy, itchy symptoms. There are many over-the-counter options that won’t cause severe drowsiness.
• Decongestants are best for congestion but carry risk for people with hypertension.
• Nasal steroid sprays are excellent for most symptoms of allergic rhinitis but must be used consistently and daily for optimal results.
• Allergy eye drops can be beneficial when used in combination with other allergy medications.
• Allergen immunotherapy, a.k.a. allergy shots, can help desensitize and potentially cure, while also preventing development of new allergies and asthma. This treatment requires a time commitment, with weekly buildup injections for four to six months followed by monthly maintenance injections for three to five years. This is not a quick fix but it can offer a cure so that medications will not be required.
Pollen can cause a lot of misery. It can disturb your sleep, restrict your lifestyle and make you sick. If these tips don’t help, and you are still suffering, consider talking with an allergist.
Dr. Mona V. Mangat is a board-certified allergist and immunologist at Bay Area Allergy & Asthma in St. Petersburg. Find her at bayallergy.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.