Just when you thought the weather was cooling off and you were in for some relief, here come the ragweed pollens ushering in fall with all kinds of allergic misery. If you find yourself feeling miserable every year from late summer to early fall, you might be allergic to ragweed.
Here’s a Q&A to help you learn more about this highly allergenic plant and how it affects your health.
Q: What is ragweed?
A: Ragweed is a flowering plant from the genus Ambrosia. There are about 50 species of ragweed, but the most allergenic of them all is known as Ambrosia artemisiifolia (also known as short ragweed).
Q: Where does it grow?
A: Ragweed can grow in most types of soil, but it thrives in heavy, moist soil. You can find it in fields (particularly in corn and soybean fields), in vacant lots, along roadsides, and near marshes and beaches.
Ragweed is especially common in the Midwest and East, but no state is exempt from ragweed. This may be owing to the fact that ragweed pollens are so light. A swift breeze can carry one of these pollens for miles. In fact, ragweed pollens have been found as far as 400 miles out to sea.
Q: How long does it last?
A: If you’re biding your time until ragweed season ends, you have several weeks yet. Depending on where you live, ragweed season can stretch from early August to mid-October. If you get the feeling that ragweed season seems longer and longer each year, you may be onto something. There is a growing body of research showing that high levels of carbon dioxide in the air and increased temperatures due to global warming are contributing to longer ragweed seasons.
Q: How do I know if I’m allergic to ragweed?
A: Ragweed may well be the most allergenic plant around. Conservative estimates show that roughly half of all people with hay fever and asthma are allergic to ragweed. Nationwide, about 23 million people suffer from ragweed allergies.
Ragweed symptoms include a runny or stuffy nose, an itchy throat, red or itchy eyes, wheezing, and asthma. If you experience these symptoms at the end of summer and into fall, consult with your allergy doctor. He or she can perform a skin test to measure your reaction to ragweed pollens.
Q: Why does ragweed trigger my allergies?
A: The issue here is not the ragweed pollen—it is actually harmless. The problem is the way your body perceives the pollen. An allergic reaction kicks off when your body comes into contact with these pollens, thinks that they are intruders like germs or bacteria, and begins releasing chemicals to fight them off. It’s not an appropriate response—your body should simply ignore these pollens. Instead, it’s an overreaction that ends up doing nothing to hurt the ragweed pollens but a lot to diminish your quality of life.
Q: Why is ragweed so allergenic?
A: One reason is that ragweed is such a prolific pollinator. A single ragweed plant can release a billion pollen grains into the environment in just one allergy season.
Q: How do I avoid it?
A: The answer is: you can’t—at least not totally. You can, however, be smart about when you go outside. Ragweed pollens tend to be at their peak from 10 am to 3 pm. They are also worse on warm, dry, windy days. A good rain will often put a damper on them.
Make sure to keep your windows closed during ragweed season—that cool fall breeze may feel good, but it won’t be worth it if you’re a wheezing, sneezing mess. You can buy HEPA filters for your air conditioning unit, wash or brush your pets regularly (in case pollen grains are hitchhiking on them), and get rid of any ragweed plants that may be in your yard.
Q: Can ragweed allergies be treated?
A: If avoidance fails, treatment can help. Here are some options:
- Medications: Medications such as antihistamines and decongestants can treat the symptoms of allergy. If all you need is a little relief for a few weeks of ragweed season, you may be able to make do with over-the-counter or prescription drugs.
- Immunotherapy: If your ragweed allergies are particularly bad or if you experience allergy symptoms throughout three or more months of the year (due to ragweed and/or other pollens, mold, dust, etc.), you probably don’t want to keep popping pills to keep your symptoms at bay. Talk to your allergy doctor about immunotherapy, which desensitizes your body to ragweed and other allergens.
For people with significant allergies, immunotherapy is a good choice because it does more than just mask the symptoms—it treats the underlying allergy for lasting relief.
Immunotherapy for ragweed is available through:
- Tablets: An immunotherapy tablet known as Ragwitek can be dissolved under the tongue daily for desensitization to the highly allergenic short ragweed pollen. It must be initiated at least 12 weeks before ragweed season starts, and the initial dose should be taken under direct physician supervision.
- Shots: With allergy shots, also known as subcutaneous immunotherapy, a clinician can inject allergenic extract into your skin (usually on your arm). The benefit is that, unlike Ragwitek tablets, shots contain a mixture of allergenic extracts. If you are allergic to more than just ragweed (and many allergy sufferers tend to have multiple triggers), you can become desensitized to all of them at once. Shots also avoid the side effects that come with medications because they are a nature-based treatment.
The disadvantage of shots is that they must be administered under direct medical supervision due to the risk of anaphylactic reaction. That means you’ll have to make a couple of trips per week to the doctor’s office.
- Drops: Sublingual immunotherapy drops can be dispensed under the tongue daily where they will be absorbed into the bloodstream through cells in the mouth. Like shots, the drops can desensitize your body to many allergens at once, but because they are safer than shots, they can be taken at home. The drops are also less age-restrictive than shots, so they are often a good choice for children who are too young to qualify for allergy shots. And finally, drops provide a natural allergy treatment without the chemicals of allergy drugs.
Late summer and fall can be among the most beautiful times of year. If ragweed is putting a damper on the season, take action. Talk to your allergy doctor about a solution, and start enjoying the great outdoors without allergic misery.