Here's What You Need to Know About Hay Fever

John Bottrell Health Pro
  • No matter how hard you try, you cannot hide from springtime allergens. They are ubiquitous.

    About 15 percent of those inflicted with allergies this time of year are reacting to tree pollen, which can travel up to 400 miles and is easily inhaled. The other 85 percent of us are affected by grass pollen, which is equally annoying. In either case, the symptoms are the same: itchy and watery eyes, stuffy and runny nose, scratchy throat and maybe wheezing if you also have asthma.

    While we now recognize this malady as springtime or seasonal allergies, back in the late 18th and early 19th century the condition was less well understood. Back then, a link was made between hay season and cold-like symptoms. Thus, when someone developed cold-like symptoms from the end of May to end of July, they were often diagnosed with “hay fever.”

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    By the mid-19th century, however, studies were being done on the reproduction of plants, and it was determined that they reproduce sexually. That’s how pollen was discovered. Some plants were discovered to be pollinated by bees and others by wind.

    Around that time, one of the greatest scientists of all time, Louis Pasteur, learned that some diseases were caused by tiny microbes. Other doctors soon picked up on Pasteur's ideas, including Dr. Charles Blakely.

    Blakely suffered from severe hay fever, and he believed his condition was the result of exposure to grass pollen, not hay. So he decided to perform tests on himself to prove his theory.

    Terry Allen Hicks, in his book "Allergies," (2006, China, page 40) describes how Blakely saved some grass pollen in a jar until winter. When all the grass was dead, he opened the jar, inhaled, and almost immediately started sneezing. It was clear that his allergy symptoms were not caused by hay, but pollen.

    Yet the diagnosis of 'hay fever' was so ingrained in our medical nomenclature that it stuck. The irony is that a 'fever' has never been part of the diagnosis. People with allergies don't get fevers.

    More appropriate terms for hay fever are either seasonal allergies or, scientifically speaking, nasal rhinitis.

    We now know that grass pollen is harmless for most people. It bothers only the 10 percent of us who have developed allergies. That means our immune systems have an abnormal response, or hypersensitivity, to various allergens, such as grass pollen.

    The first time you were exposed to grass pollen, your body treated it like an enemy combatant, and it developed antibodies. Every subsequent time you are exposed to grass pollen, your body recognizes that pollen and goes to war with it.

    In the reaction that ensues, histamine and leukotrienes are released into your bloodstream and that causes inflammation of the tissue around your eyes and respiratory tract. It's this inflammation that leads to allergy symptoms. This can also be an asthma trigger in people with asthma. This is why your asthma acts up during grass pollen season.

    Jon C. Hopwood, in "What Are Grass Pollen Allergies?" describes grass pollen as microscopic round and oval-shaped grains that contain the plant's seed. The wind picks the pollen up and carries it for miles and miles so grass can grow anywhere.

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    Hopwood explains:  "Generally, grass releases its pollen in the period stretching from late spring through the early summer. In the Southern region of the United States, the "hay fever" season can start as early as March and continue through October. In the North, the heavy fever season typically begins in May and ends in August."

    He says that there are a whopping 1,200 different types of grasses, but the ones that cause allergies are Bermuda grass, Johnson grass, Kentucky bluegrass, orchard grass, redtop grass, sweet vernal grass and timothy grass.

    Your allergic symptoms last for as long as you're exposed to the offending allergen, so chances are your allergies will cause you grief through most of spring and much of the  summer. So what can you do about it?

    Well, it's kind of a tricky topic. Not only is there grass pollen, but everyone cuts the grass these days. If you live in a neighborhood, chances are someone is cutting the grass every day.

    I highly recommend that you don't cut the grass yourself. If you do, wear a protective mask. This doesn't make taking care of the lawn fun, but sometimes we gotta do what we gotta do.

    Pollen counts tend to be higher on dry, warm, and breezy mornings. They tend to be lower on cold and wet days. So this can give you a good idea on which days your allergies may be particularly bad. Pollen counts also tend to be higher in the mornings, such as between 5 and 10 a.m.

    Some experts recommend checking out sites like this that monitor pollen counts. This can give you a good idea as to when to plan indoor activities to duck and hide from pollen.

    As I've noted before, though, I'm not a big fan of ducking and hiding. The problem with this is that it kind of ruins your enjoyment of spring. My goal is to be normal, and normal people don't live in a bubble.

    I can't imagine not having the window open and missing out on that nice spring breeze wafting through the house. But if you do have the window open, avoid window fans. They have a tendency to blow the nasty stuff through the entire house and exacerbate the problem.

    Besides, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) notes that even if you have the doors and windows shut, grass pollen can still make it into your house. It comes in on clothing—such as kids who crawl in the grass--and on pets. So you'll have to keep an eye on those things too.


    Other options are to try various over-the-counter antihistamines, such as Claritin, Zyrtec or Benadryl. If those don't seem to work, you can talk to your doctor about prescription medicines such as leukotriene antagonists like Singulair. One medication, or a combination of them, could give you some relief.

    At the same time, however, it's also essential that you continue to work with your doctor to keep your asthma in good control. In my experience as a lifetime asthmatic/allergy sufferer, I find it's far easier to keep asthma under control than allergies. 


Published On: May 14, 2012