August is a popular vacation month, time for sunning at the seashore, going to your mountain cabin or campground or hitting the theme parks with your family. One last gasp before the kids go back to school and work schedules return to “normal.” Fun, fun, fun, right?
Unfortunately, for those of us with ragweed pollen allergies, August can also be the start of some of our most miserable weeks of the year. About 36 million Americans, about 10 to 20 percent of the population, are allergic to ragweed, a prolific weed that grows throughout most of the United States.
Ragweed is especially common in eastern and Midwestern states’ rural regions. The most common place to find it is areas of bare soil, such as vacant lots and along roadways and river banks. Although each plant blooms only once a year, during that time it produces as much as 1 billion grains of pollen. Because ragweed pollen is extremely light, air currents carry it far and wide. Ragweed seeds can also often survive for years in the soil too, waiting to grow until conditions are right.
How to Know If You Have Ragweed Allergy
If you notice your allergy symptoms ramping up or getting worse during August or the early fall, then chances are you have a ragweed allergy. And exposure to ragweed pollen can quickly send both allergy and asthma symptoms out of control. Here are common symptoms of ragweed allergy:
- Stuffy, runny nose
- Itching of the eyes, throat, mouth & nose
- Tightness of the chest
- Shortness of breath
In people who have severe allergies, symptoms can quickly escalate into full-blown asthma attacks, chronic sinusitis, headaches, fatigue, and insomnia.
Three-quarters of people who are allergic to pollen are allergic to ragweed. Allergy tests can determine for sure if you’re one of them, but as I said, if your symptoms get worse in August, you’ve probably got a ragweed allergy.
So, What Can You Do to Avoid Complete Misery?
Obviously, your first line of defense is to avoid ragweed, but since it’s found in so many places, that’s not always the easiest thing to accomplish. Still, it can be done. Here are a few suggestions:
- Stay indooruring times when ragweed pollen levels are at their peak. This will usually be on hot, windy days, especially in early morning hours. So, if you must go outdoors, try to wait until the afternoon, if you can. Keep your windows closed and your air conditioning on, preferably one with a HEPA filter. If you go out in your car, again, keep windows up and AC on.
- Vacation somewhere that tends to have low levels of ragweed pollen, such as the seashore or the mountains in the western states.
- Take your medicine as prescribed for allergies and asthma. This might include oral antihistamines, antihistamine nasal sprays or eye drops, inhaled steroids and more. If you don’t need to take allergy medicine year-round, then starting it at least a couple of weeks before ragweed season will ensure it is at peak levels by the time pollen levels first start to rise.
- Allergy shots can be used to slowly de-sensitize you to ragweed pollen and to reduce your need for medicine. Talk with your doctor about whether this might be the right choice for you.
- Pray for the first frost
Ragweed allergy is no fun, but it doesn’t have to ruin your summer and early fall either. With a little preparation and common sense, you can take control of your allergies and prevent them from interfering in your life.
Kathi is an experienced consumer health education writer, with a prior career in nursing that spanned more than 30 years — much of it in the field of home health care. Over the past 15 years, she’s been an avid contributor for a number of consumer health websites, specializing in asthma, allergy, and COPD. She writes not only as a healthcare professional, but also as a lifelong sufferer of severe allergies and mild asthma, and as a caregiver for her mother with COPD.