How to Reduce Your Exposure to Pollen

Health Professional, Medical Reviewer

There's so much to love about the spring season. The warmer weather, brighter mornings and evenings, and longer days. They all seem to make life so much better. But for more than 50 million Americans, spring can be a double-edged sword. Spring marks the beginning of pollen season, and depending on where you live and your local weather patterns, trees can signal the start of a dismal wave of allergy symptoms. So how can you avoid them?

Know When to Expect Your Triggers

Besides being beautiful to look at, trees are vital to human existence. They produce oxygen, clean the air and soil, help to prevent flooding, reduce noise, provide shade, and can even increase property values.

The downside is that some of them spew out millions of pollen grains that can travel hundreds of miles, assaulting the allergic eyes and noses of millions of people.  In the northern part of the U.S., certain trees pollinate early in the spring, such as elm, birch and box elder. Other types, such as the oak tree, tend to pollinate later in the season (May).

Then, during the months of May and June (earlier in the South), grass pollen begins to burst into the air.  There is typically a point in the season where tree and grass pollen overlap, which occurs in late spring and early summer, before ragweed releases pollen in the middle of August.

Although the pollen suspended in the air is not visible to the naked eye, the sensitive lining of the allergic nose and eyes can react to even small numbers of pollen grains. Therefore, the higher the pollen count, the more hazardous the conditions for people with allergies.  Knowing when your allergy trigger is in peak season can help you recognize when conditions will be most hazardous for you.** When Symptoms Get Worse**

Many people with seasonal allergies describe a pattern of worsening symptoms as the season progresses. One explanation for this is "priming."  Priming occurs when the inside lining of the nose, eyes or throat become more sensitive over time, thus making them more vulnerable to allergic triggers. Tree pollen may prime you in the spring, causing you to experience worse symptoms of itching, sneezing, runny nose and nasal congestion once grass season arrives in the summer. Priming early in the season can also make symptoms harder to control later on.

By getting an early start with antihistamines and topical nasal steroids, seasonal allergies can be prevented and controlled. You can also minimize priming if you short-circuit the process and start treatment days before exposure.

What's the best way to reduce priming?

  1. Team up with your allergy care provider and map out a plan that addresses when to start your medications based on a combination of the expected pollen for that season and pollen forecasts.

Monitor pollen levels and forecasts.

  1. Ask for adequate refills of allergy medications to get you through your seasonal allergy periods.

  1. Have your doctor or nurse check on your nasal spray technique.

Review indoor allergy triggers and how to reduce your exposure to them. Remember, outdoor triggers may also prime you to suffer more from indoor allergy triggers.

Checking Pollen Counts

Pollen counts are measures of outdoor pollen levels. These are determined by analyzing the amount of pollen grains that get trapped in a collection device mounted on buildings in various cities and suburbs. Experts count and analyze the grains under a microscope to determine the type of plant (tree, grass or weed) and species they came from. Flowery plants have pollen that is much too large and bulky to travel more than a few feet in the air when released, so they are not a problem for most allergy sufferers.

Following pollen counts helps you to plan for outdoor activities and possibly avoid being outside during times of high-risk exposure. The information can also help you determine when to ramp up or start allergy medications. It's important to note that pollen counts are not real-time measures of what's in the air. Measuring and reporting takes time, so keep in mind that by the time you hear or read about local pollen levels, one to three days have already passed.

Pollen forecasts  also take into account the pollen count and projected local weather patterns, which may either increase or decrease the amount of pollen in the air. However, it's difficult to know how to interpret pollen counts if you don't know what you are allergic to.

Identify Your Allergy Triggers

Do you notice that during the spring season, you suffer from allergy symptoms but don't know the cause? You may generalize your symptoms as simply "seasonal," but knowing exactly which seasonal allergens trigger your symptoms can help you avoid them.

Allergy skin testing identifies specific allergic hypersensitivities and provides vital information for the management of moderate-to-severe hay fever. Board certified allergists are trained to do skin testing and interpret the results. Patients must stop their antihistamines (Zyrtec, Claritin, Allegra and Benadryl, for example) for five or more days before their appointment. The arms are most often used for testing, from the inside of the elbows down to the wrists.

Prick-skin tests require numbers to be written on the arms in order to identify the different allergen drops that are placed next to them. Once the drops are placed on the arm, a plastic device that looks like a toothpick is used to gently prick the upper layer of skin. Within 15-20 minutes, the skin tests can be read by the doctor or assistant. Blood tests are used to determine allergic sensitivity when skin testing is not available.

Bottom Line

Planning and preparation are essential for the successful management of seasonal nasal and eye allergies. If you know what your allergy triggers are, as well as what's floating in the air, you will be better prepared for what tomorrow brings. Allergists emphasize the importance of timing in taking medications and being a step ahead of your outdoor allergy triggers.