If you’re anything like I am, you enjoy certain aspects of winter but are happy when spring takes the baton. The sight of flowers bursting into rainbow blooms and foliage revitalizing tree branches can add a bounce to your step.
But along with the beauty and color and themes of renewal, spring can bring misery, too. When things start to grow, pollen takes to the air, making spring a war zone for many allergy sufferers.
Why does it have to be this way?
You may have asked, “Can’t my body and pollen just get along?” After all, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the pollen of a birch or elm tree. The problem is the way your body reacts.
When allergies occur, it’s because your body is getting confused and mistaking a harmless pollen for something harmful—like germs or bacteria. Your immune system goes into offensive mode in order to fend off the “enemy,” releasing chemicals into the body. One of these chemicals is known as histamine. (You may recognize this term from familiar drugs known as antihistamines which, as the name implies, are engineered to reduce or block histamine.)
Histamines are released by certain cells in your body known as mast cells. When these cells get the message, they unleash the histamines. Histamines increase blood flow in targeted areas. This causes inflammation, which plays out differently depending on the region of your body affected by the allergen. Inflammation in your nasal tissues can cause your nasal passages to become constricted, resulting in a stuffed up nose. Inflammation of the tissues around your eyes can lead to red, swollen and itchy eyes. Inflammation of your skin can lead to skin rashes, such as eczema or hives.
What are the most common spring allergy triggers?
Trees start to pollinate early in spring. Depending on the part of the country you live in, you may start feeling the effects of tree pollens as early as February. Here’s a look at when trees start pollinating (may vary depending on which region you live in):
February/March: Alder, Birch, Cedar, Juniper, Cottonwood, Elm, Maple, Willow, Mesquite, Olive
April/May: Ash, Oak, Pine, Sycamore, Black Walnut, Mulberry, Pecan
While some of these trees take a brief break during summer, they can pick up again in early or late fall. Cedar, for example, can pollinate from February through May in the South and then pollinate again from October through December. I’ve had people from Texas come to me for allergy treatment around Christmas time because the Mountain Cedar pollen is rendering them almost unable to function.
You should also be mindful that when climates are warm, things tend to pollinate earlier than they do in other places. For example, Acacia trees can be spreading their misery as early as January in my home state of Arizona.
Just as the trees start to die down in April or May, grasses take over. Bermuda tends to pollinate first (as early as April in the Southwest) followed by Meadow Fescue, Kentucky Bluegrass and Rye. Then comes Bahia, Johnson, Brome and Timothy (usually in June).
What can I do so I’m not so miserable?
If you find spring feeling like an uncomfortable (or downright unbearable) experience year after year, it’s time to take action. Here are some tips to prepare you for spring:
1. Avoidance. You can prepare to avoid pollens. This might mean hiring someone to take care of your yard in spring so you don’t have to be outdoors any longer than you need to. You can get an app on your phone to help you keep track of pollen counts. On days when pollen levels are particularly high, you’ll know to stay inside. Invest in High Efficiency Particulate Air filters (HEPA) that can trap pollutants in the air, including pollen and pet dander. Make sure to clean them regularly (if washable) and replace them as directed. Be mindful, though, that pollen is everywhere in spring. If avoidance isn’t helping, be prepared to consider other options.
2. Talk to your doctor. Speak with your physician well ahead of spring to let them know about your allergies. They may conduct an allergy skin test to determine what you’re allergic to. Based on the results of the test and the symptoms that you are describing to your doctor, they may recommend medications or allergy immunotherapy. As a general rule, if your symptoms come in short bursts (several weeks in spring), medications may be the best course for you. If your symptoms last longer than three or four months of the year or are particularly severe, your doctor may recommend immunotherapy.
3. Find the best medications for you (if appropriate). Your doctor may prescribe medications such as antihistamines or decongestants—or even recommend that you try over-the-counter varieties. They may also recommend oral corticosteroids if you are really struggling with allergy-related inflammation (that may lead to skin rashes, coughing, asthma, etc.) All of these medications have side effects; study them carefully. You may find that certain medications work better for you than others. You should talk to your doctor if you are experiencing unwanted side effects.
4. Explore immunotherapy (if appropriate). If your doctor suggests allergy immunotherapy, see an allergy doctor right away. It takes a while for your immune system to adjust to the treatment so the sooner you can start, the better fortified you will be against spring allergens. Whereas medications treat the symptoms of the underlying allergy, immunotherapy treats the allergy itself. That means that it can “teach” your immune system to stop overreacting to the pollens that once made you miserable.
Allergy immunotherapy is available as allergy shots. Shots must be administered under direct supervision due to the risk of an anaphylactic reaction. Thus, they require you to drive to the doctor’s office—usually a couple of times per week.
Another option is under-the-tongue allergy drops (also known as sublingual immunotherapy). They are safer than shots so they can be dispensed at home. They are also safer for young children than shots are. They are absorbed into your bloodstream through special cells in the mouth.
Bonus: Though allergy shots have not been proven to be safe and successful in treating food allergies, sublingual immunotherapy has. The under-the-tongue allergy drops have been shown be an effective egg, milk, tree nut, and wheat allergy treatment.
And finally, allergy immunotherapy is available in the form of allergy tablets that may be prescribed for ragweed, some grass pollen, and house dust mites. The tablets are not yet available for tree allergies. Your doctor may recommend that you start taking the tablets a few months before pollens are in the air to give your body time to build up immunity to them. The main drawback of the allergy tablets is that they only work for specific allergens. If you are allergic to multiple things, drops or shorts may be the better choice for you.
Thankfully, there are ways to end the cycle of spring misery. Prepare now by researching your options, then talking with your doctor about the best course of action for you.