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woman sneezing from pollen allergy

Pollen allergies, sometimes referred to as “hay fever,” are common, especially in the spring and summer. When the warmer weather rolls around, millions of Americans find themselves dealing with sneezing, itchy/watery eyes, nasal congestion, or a runny nose. If you think you suffer from pollen allergies, continue reading to learn more about what triggers your reaction, as well as helpful treatments and preventative measures you can take.


What is a Pollen Allergy?

Pollen is a common cause of seasonal allergies and once pollen season hits, many people suffer from an allergic reaction that experts refer to as seasonal allergic rhinitis.

During the spring and on into the summer and fall, plants start releasing tiny grains of pollen, which is a very fine powder. They’re designed to help fertilize other plants, but these tiny pollen grains are lightweight and small enough to travel via the wind, as well as via birds, insects, and other animals.

Unfortunately, when you breathe in this pollen, your body may view it as a threat, which triggers the immune system and can cause an allergic reaction. For some people, even a few grains of pollen are enough to provoke a reaction.

Inhaling pollen releases water-soluble proteins onto the lining of the respiratory system. Usually, those proteins are harmless. However, they can be mistaken by the body for harmful substances. When this occurs, the body reacts to the perceived threat by creating substances called IgE antibodies. They attach to mast cells within the body, which release histamine, the substance responsible for the symptoms of allergies.

Different Types of Pollen Allergies

Various types of pollen exist and may affect people differently. Some of the common types of pollen allergies include:

  • Trees such as oak, cedar, or birch
  • Grasses such as Timothy or Bermuda
  • Weeds such as ragweed or pigweed

The most common pollen allergy is to grass. However, everyone reacts differently, and some individuals may have symptoms when trees begin to flower, while others may deal with worsening symptoms when grasses begin growing.

Some individuals with pollen allergies may find that they are sensitive to certain types of foods, a condition called oral allergy syndrome. It’s important to talk to your allergist about how your pollen allergies could impact the foods you eat.

Common Pollen Allergy Symptoms

People with a pollen allergy who inhale pollen, experience symptoms such as:

  • Itchy eyes
  • Wheezing
  • Sneezing
  • Itchy throat
  • Runny nose
  • Nasal congestion
  • Watery eyes
  • Swelling and redness around the eyes
  • Itchy nose, mouth, or ears

For people who have asthma, pollen may aggravate asthma symptoms and lead to wheezing, cough, shortness of breath, or chest tightness.

Diagnosing Pollen Allergies

Typically two different tests are used by allergists to diagnose pollen allergies:

Skin Prick Test (SPT)

The skin prick test involves placing a small drop of a potential allergen on the skin, then lightly scratching or pricking that spot with a plastic device. Within 15-20 minutes, if you’re allergic to the substance being tested, a small itchy wheal or “hive” will appear at the site of the test.  The larger the wheal, the more likely you are allergic to that allergen.  In some cases, skin prick testing may be followed by intradermal testing for confirmation.  Intradermal testing involves placing a small amount of diluted allergen under the skin using a tiny needle.  A similar reaction occurs after 15-20 minutes if you are sensitive to the allergen being tested.

Just remember, a positive reaction to an allergen doesn’t always mean you have an allergy. Your allergist can help determine whether a positive test is clinically relevant.

Specific IgE Blood Test

If you’re taking medicines or have a skin condition that may interfere with the skin prick test, blood tests may be helpful. These tests involve giving a blood sample, which is sent to a lab. The lab adds the allergen to the blood sample and measures the antibodies against that particular allergen in the blood sample.

Treatments for Pollen Allergies

A variety of different treatments may be used to help treat the symptoms of a pollen allergy. These include:

Allergy Medications

Medicines, both over the counter and prescription, often help reduce the symptoms of pollen allergies. Some popular medications include:

  • Antihistamines, which combat the histamine production that occurs with an allergic reaction, are one of the most common treatments and come in pill, liquid, or nasal spray form.
  • Nasal corticosteroids are a type of nasal spray that can block allergic reactions and reduce inflammation in the nose. They are extremely effective for allergic rhinitis since they reduce all symptoms and have few side effects.
  • Decongestants, which come in nasal spray, drop, liquid, or pill form, help shrink the lining of your nasal passages to relieve nasal congestion.
  • Cromolyn sodium is a type of nasal spray that blocks leukotrienes and histamines, which cause allergy systems.
  • Leukotriene receptor antagonists help block chemicals other than histamines that help create allergic reactions.

Allergy Shots

Allergy shots, which are called subcutaneous immunotherapy, have been very well studied and have been used for decades to help provide relief from and potentially cure pollen allergies. This involves a series of injections that contain larger and larger amounts of a specific allergen to help improve symptoms over time by teaching the immune system to become tolerant to that allergen.

Sublingual Immunotherapy 

Like allergy shots, sublingual immunotherapy treatment uses tablets containing allergens that are placed beneath the tongue for a minute or two before being swallowed.

Tips to Reduce Exposure to Pollen Triggers

Beyond taking medications to treat seasonal allergies, you can take measures to reduce exposure, prevent symptoms, or treat your allergy with home remedies.

Ways to reduce your exposure to pollen include:

  • Delegate tasks like pulling weeds or mowing the lawn to others to avoid contact with allergens.
  • Avoid hanging laundry outdoors as pollen may stick to towels and sheets.
  • Stay indoors when it’s windy and dry. It’s better to go outside after it rains since rain helps clear the pollen from the air.
  • Remove clothing and shower after being outdoors to remove pollen.
  • If you do outdoor chores, wear a pollen mask.

Take Additional Steps When There’s a High Pollen Count

When there’s a high pollen count outside (you can often check with your local weather channel), take additional steps to reduce exposure.

  • Check your local forecast, radio station, or local TV for the current pollen level and the pollen forecast. CAAC has a pollen counter and levels may be found on our website.
  • Take allergy medicines before symptoms occur if there are high pollen counts.
  • Avoid being outdoors in the morning when the pollen counts are generally highest.
  • Close windows and doors at night or at any time when the pollen counts become high.

Clean Indoor Air

While it’s difficult to eliminate all allergens from your indoor air, a few tips that may help include:

  • Use a dehumidifier to keep indoor air dry.
  • Use the air conditioning in your car and home.
  • If you have air conditioning or forced-air heating, be sure to install high-efficiency filters. Change the filters regularly.
  • Clean your floors often with a vacuum that includes a HEPA filter.
  • Put a high-efficiency air filter in your bedroom.

When to See a Doctor for Pollen Allergies

If you’re not sure what’s causing your allergies, or if your allergy symptoms are interrupting your daily life, it might be time to see an allergist. Allergists are specially trained to help patients diagnose and treat allergies and other immune issues.  Contact the Carolina Asthma & Allergy Center today to book your appointment.

Pollen Allergy FAQs

How do you know if you are allergic to pollen?

You may be allergic to pollen if you have symptoms like watery eyes or a runny nose around the same time every year. However, only a doctor can diagnose a pollen allergy, which is done using a skin prick test or a blood test called a Specific IgE Blood Test.

How long do pollen allergies last?

Seasonal pollen allergies generally last around three months. According to Cleveland Clinic, tree pollen season usually lasts between March and May, grass pollen season from mid-May to July, and ragweed season between mid-August and the first frost.

What are the different types of pollen allergies?

The most common types of pollen allergies are tree, grass, and weed allergies. Tree pollen allergies commonly include oak pollen or birch pollen. Grass pollen allergies tend to be some of the most stubborn. And the most common weed allergy is ragweed.

Why does pollen cause allergies?

In individuals with pollen allergies, when pollen is breathed in through the respiratory system, the immune system thinks the pollen is a danger to the body. It starts making chemicals to fight the pollen, causing an allergic reaction. Histamines released as a part of this reaction lead to the symptoms of allergies like a stuffy nose, watery eyes, and sneezing.