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You Can’t Run and You Can’t Hide from Ragweed

Allergy image

Come late summer, many Americans begin to experience the symptoms of ragweed allergy, or hay fever. Sneezing; stuffy or runny nose; itchy eyes, nose, and throat; and trouble sleeping can make life uncomfortable for these people. Some of them also must deal with asthma attacks. All this can begin when ragweeds release pollen into the air, and it can continue almost until frost kills the plant.

Ragweeds are weeds that grow throughout the United States. They are most common in the Eastern states and the Midwest. A plant lives only one season, but that plant produces up to one billion pollen grains. After midsummer, as nights grow longer, ragweed flowers mature and release pollen. Warmth, humidity, and breezes after sunrise help the release. The pollen must then travel by air to another plant to fertilize the seed for growth the coming year.

Ragweed plants usually grow in rural areas. Near the plants, the pollen counts are highest shortly after dawn. The amount of pollen peaks in many urban areas between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., depending on the weather. Rain and low morning temperatures (below 50 degrees Fahrenheit) slow pollen release.

Ragweed pollen can travel far. It has been measured in the air 400 miles out to sea and 2 miles up in the atmosphere, but most falls close to its source. It is often found along roadsides and riverbanks, in vacant lots, and in fields. Seeds in the soil even after many decades will grow when conditions are right.

Ragweed Allergy
The job of immune system cells is to find foreign substances, such as viruses and bacteria, and get rid of them. Normally, this response protects us from dangerous diseases. People with allergies have especially sensitive immune systems that react when they contact certain harmless substances called allergens. When people who are allergic to ragweed pollen inhale its allergens from air, the common hay fever symptoms develop.

Of Americans who are allergic to pollen-producing plants, 75 percent are allergic to ragweed. People with allergies to one type of pollen tend to develop allergies to other pollens as well.

Ragweed pollen can travel far. It has been measured in the air 400 miles out to sea and 2 miles up in the atmosphere.

People with ragweed allergy may also get symptoms when they eat cantaloupe and banana. Chamomile tea, sunflower seeds, and honey containing pollen from ragweed and its relatives occasionally cause severe reactions, including shock.

Symptoms of ragweed allergy include eye irritation, runny nose, stuffy nose, puffy eyes, sneezing, and inflamed, itchy nose and throat. Asthma attacks, chronic sinusitis, headaches, and impaired sleep may occur in those with severe allergies.

What Can I Do About It?
There is no cure for ragweed allergy. The best control is to avoid contact with the pollen. This is difficult given the amount of ragweed pollen in the air during pollination time. There is help, though.

  • Track the pollen count for your area. The news media often reports the count, especially when pollen is high. You also can visit the National Allergy Bureau website, aaaai.org/nab. It will give you the pollen count for your region.
  • Stay indoors in central air conditioning with a HEPA filter attachment when the pollen count is high. This will remove pollen from the indoor air.
  • Get away from the pollen where possible. People in the Eastern and Midwestern states may get some relief by going west to the Rocky Mountains and beyond. Going to sea or abroad in late summer can greatly reduce exposure. But check the area abroad you plan to visit. It may have a ragweed season as well.
     
    You might even consider moving to get away from ragweed. Although this often helps people feel better for a short time, it is common to develop allergies to plants in the new location within a few years. A well-thought-out treatment plan is a better way to live with your allergies.
  • Take antihistamine medications. These work well to control hay fever symptoms, whatever the cause. The drowsiness caused by older products is less of a problem with antihistamines now on the market. Anti-inflammatory nose sprays or drops also help and have few side effects. Similar agents can reduce eye symptoms, but other remedies are needed for the less common, pollen-induced asthma.
  • If medication does not give enough relief, consider immunotherapy (allergy shots). This approach reduces the allergic response to specific allergens. For it to work, the allergens must be carefully identified. The allergens are injected over several months or years. If diagnosis and treatment are well directed, you may see major improvements in symptoms.
 

Source: Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, www.aafa.org .

This article was originally published in Coping® with Allergies & Asthma magazine, September/October 2010.