I can hear it in my office. Can you hear it in yours?
It’s that awkward silence after a co-worker has sneezed for the hundredth time and no one around them has the energy to say, “bless you” (again).
Heralded by sneezes and sniffles, the sounds of allergy season are here.
This winter held on tight with its icy grip and ended rather abruptly in some parts of the country making the trees and flowers burst open all at once. While it is hard to quantify how bad an allergy season will be, experts are predicting this one to be a perfect storm of airborne annoyance.
While the bolus of blooming puts pollen counts in the triple digits, the good news is the season should be less lengthy:
“The allergy season has been slow to start this year, but now we’re seeing a high pollen count from trees. They’re all pollinating together. This will be a heavy season, but since the pollination started quite late, it will be shorter,” stated Dr. Joseph Leija, an allergist with the Loyola University Health System’s Gottleib Memorial Hospital in Chicago in this article on pollen.com.
A time of renewal and growth, spring means trees, grasses, weeds and flowers propagate their species by releasing microscopic pollen grains that travel for miles, fill the air, coat our cars and enter our lungs.
Our body, not being a tree or flower, sees these grains of pollen as foreign invaders it must eliminate.
A lot happens in your body before that first sneeze ever escapes:
Contact is made and plasma cells from your immune system produce antibodies to fight the “invaders”
The antibodies attach to mast cells, found mostly in your skin and blood vessels
The allergen binds with the antibodies triggering the mast cells to release histamines and other inflammatory chemicals they contain to fight the good fight
In response, blood vessels dilate and leak and mucus is released (must. get. invaders. out. now.) which creates the symptoms you so dearly love:
- Runny nose
- Itchy skin (hives)
- Watery and/or itchy eyes
- And the always lovely, post nasal drip that makes you cough and clear your throat ten million times
For those with asthma, this may also trigger a tightening of small respiratory passages causing (potentially life threatening) wheezing and shortness of breath.
Pollen counts measure the number of pollen grains per cubic meter over a twenty-four hour period and vary with location, time of day and weather. Windy, breezy days have high pollen counts as the grains are carried through the air. Rain settles everything, washes away the allergens and lowers the counts. (Yes!)
The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology’s National Allergy Bureau provides pollen levels from pollen count stations across the United States here.
This time of year is especially bothersome to those who prefer to exercise outdoors. The warm weather means you can finally do all the fun activities you were denied all winter but the symptoms make it less enjoyable
So, here it is, the secret to avoiding seasonal allergies:
Live in, and never leave, a hermetically sealed,
controlled environment where plants don’t exist.
Good one, right?
OK, this scenario is pretty ridiculous but avoidance is still your best option to lessen the suffering. Here are some tips for how to steer clear of the mayhem outside:
Healthy Engagement – follow the local pollen counts. If today looks high, it might be a good day to head to the gym instead of the park.
Look Ahead – Consider moving long or intense outdoor workouts to days when the pollen counts are lower (maybe look for rain in the forecast and go for that run or ride after the showers have fallen, try this weather/pollen forecast site from The Weather Channel).
Watch Your Triggers – specific pollens release at specific times of year (trees in spring, grasses in summer, weeds in the fall.) If pine trees set you off and this is the week they are releasing the bulk of their pollen, it might be a good week to lie low indoors. You can always go back outside the following week. Follow local pollen forecasts to determine what is out when.
Stating the Obvious – if you have an antihistamine that works for you and doesn’t impair your performance, take it before you head out into the wild blue yonder.
Environmental Control – try to keep your indoor environment as pollen free as possible:
- Keep windows and doors closed in the house and the car.
- If you have forced heat/air conditioning, clean your system’s air filters often and especially post-winter.
- Pollen doesn’t stay airborne but floats, falls and settles. Wipe surfaces where pollen can collect (bookshelves, tables, vents).
- Dry clothes and bedding in a dryer versus hanging outside on a line to prevent bringing pollen into the house.
- Spent time outside? Consider immediately peeling your clothes into the hamper and taking a shower/rinsing your hair to wash away any allergens that hitched a ride inside.
Filtration for All? – Some allergists recommend HEPA filters to remove allergens from interiors. Do they work? There is no strong evidence to support the effectiveness of air filters in preventing allergies but they may reduce the number of airborne allergens. Airborne is the key word here – as noted before, pollen settles.
The bottom line is you don’t need to suffer. Consult an allergist/immunologist for simple tests to diagnose your allergies and uncover your specific triggers. In many cases, over the counter antihistamines can provide relief. Allergy shots (immunotherapy) have also been proven to provide long-term relief.
Worst Case Scenario: if your allergy trigger is in high gear, take avoidance to the extreme and head out on vacation.