By Glenn Ellis
Even though you may be still dealing with the ominous remnants of winter, it might seem a little early to talk about spring and allergies that seem to accompany warmer weather- but not really. Depending on where you live in the U.S., allergy season can start as early as February.
While the majority of America experiences spring allergies in early April, warmer regions often see pollination rise in late February to early March. Most often, the culprit is ragweed, a plant that grows wild all over the country, but especially the East Coast and Midwest.
Those with allergies in the spring are typically allergic to pollen that begins to appear in the air. You may have started seeing tree pollen, one of spring’s main offenders, in the early weeks of February. In the latter part of the season, we will begin to see grass pollen, and the combination can make the spring a miserable time for allergy sufferers. High season usually kicks into gear when the thermometer hits 60 degrees for three or four days.
Around 50 million Americans struggle with seasonal allergies each year, and the latest research shows that these rates are increasing, affecting as many as 30 percent of adults and 40 percent of children.
As you transition from cold winter to warmer spring, not only will you go outside more often, you’ll also let the outside in by opening windows for fresh spring air.
Here’s a little information you need to know to be prepared for this spring’s allergy season:
When there are higher traces of pollen and dust particles in the air, your body often goes into defense mode. Your immune system’s reaction is to attack these particles by releasing chemicals known as histamines into your bloodstream. It’s these histamines that trigger the symptoms of allergies we know all too well. Your immune system signals your body to make more mucus membranes to protect your eyes, ears, mouth, nose, and throat (hence the itching, sneezing, and running).
Pollen comes from budding and blooming trees, grass, weeds and other plants. Allergy symptoms can also increase in response to increased pet dander because both cats and dogs shed more as the weather turns warmer.
While the exact cause of allergies is not known, an allergy occurs when your immune system produces antibodies when exposed to harmless foreign matter. Your immune system is mistaking allergens like pollen and dander for dangerous substances and fighting off them off with the “immunoglobulin E” or IgE antibodies. These produce histamine that can cause the allergic reaction and the telltale symptoms of allergies.
Common asthma symptoms include chest tightness, coughing (especially at night), wheezing and/or shortness of breath. However, many of these symptoms are also seen in other conditions.
Why wait until your eyes are red and itchy and your nose won’t stop running to get medical help? You don’t have to wait until you are suffering to do something about your allergies. Whether you make an appointment with an allergist or start taking medication, it’s important to get ahead of the pollen. Preparing now can help ease your symptoms throughout the season. If you’ve never been allergy tested now is a great time to do it. Learn what you are allergic to and how to treat it before your symptoms get worse.
Start taking medication around two weeks before you typically start to feel your allergy symptoms. Over-the-counter antihistamines and nasal steroid sprays can help manage your symptoms by reducing your allergic reaction after it starts but also before. Antihistamines reduce or block histamines that cause your allergy symptoms. Pretreating with allergy medication before symptoms begin can help prevent inflammation and help ease your stuffy nose, itchy, watery eyes and other allergy symptoms.
When venturing outside, as frustrating as it may be, try to plan your schedule so that you can avoid outdoor activities when the pollen count is highest, typically 5 a.m. to 10 a.m.
It can also help to minimize spring allergies inside your home by shutting out pollen. As tempting as it may be to let the spring breeze in, keep doors and windows closed to minimize allergy symptoms. When spring cleaning, focus on areas in your home where allergens tend to accumulate – air filters, bedding, upholstered furniture, and carpeting. Vacuum often – floors, furniture, rugs – and use a vacuum with a HEPA filter.
Pollen isn’t the only spring allergy culprit. Mold can also kick your allergy symptoms into overdrive. Keep mold out of your home by focusing on areas where mold is most common -basements, bathrooms, kitchens, and any areas with leaks.
Not only will April’s showers bring more flowers, it might also cause more symptoms for spring allergy sufferers. Rain can promote plant and pollen growth. Wind accompanying a rainfall can stir pollen and mold into the air, also heightening symptoms.
Anyone with allergies and asthma should be able to feel good, be active all day and sleep well at night. No one should accept less. Don’t wait for spring allergies to play havoc with your head. Get set for allergy season now.
Glenn Ellis, is Research Bioethics Fellow at Harvard Medical School and author of Which Doctor?, and Information is the Best Medicine. Ellis is an active media contributor on Health Equity and Medical Ethics. Listen to Glenn, on radio in Birmingham or V94.9, Sundays at 7:50pm, or visit: www.glennellis.com.