Fall Is in the Air

Fall Is in the Air

And So Is Ragweed…Achoo!

Summer fun can turn to fall misery for millions of people who experience seasonal allergic rhinitis, or hay fever. Sneezing; stuffy or runny nose; itchy eyes, nose, and throat; and worsening of asthma symptoms are common in people with undiagnosed or poorly managed hay fever.

The primary culprit of fall allergies is ragweed pollen. A ragweed plant only lives one season, but it packs a powerful punch. A single plant can produce up to one billion pollen grains. These grains are exceptionally lightweight and float easily through the air.

Fall allergy symptoms used to start in mid-August and run through September. However, in many parts of the country these symptoms now begin in early August and extend through October. Some studies suggest that rising temperatures and higher carbon dioxide levels contribute to a longer growth time of allergen-producing plants.

Tracking pollen counts can help you plan when you should avoid spending a lot of time outdoors.     

Allergies occur when the body’s immune system treats the allergen, in this case ragweed, as a foreign invader. This starts a chemical reaction which produces and sends histamine throughout the bloodstream. These chemicals cause allergy symptoms to develop.

Did you know?

  • The tall goldenrod species of ragweed gets blamed for most of the pollen, but a primary cause of allergy symptoms is the tooth-leaved ragweed that lives low in the grass.
  • Ragweed can be found in almost all states in the U.S. as well as in Canada.
  • An accurate diagnosis is essential for managing symptoms. Allergy testing performed by an allergist can determine what you are and are not allergic to.
  • Although often associated with hay fever, ragweed can also cause skin conditions such as allergic contact dermatitis, or hives.

Controlling Symptoms

Proper diagnosis is the first step in managing your symptoms. Your doctor or allergist will give you a physical exam, ask about your health history, and perform allergy testing to determine exactly what you are and are not allergic to.

Although there is no cure, ragweed allergy can be managed to improve the quality of your life. Talk to your doctor about medications that may provide temporary relief from symptoms. Your doctor may also recommend immunotherapy (allergy shots) or sublingual immunotherapy allergy tablets. This long-term treatment approach can significantly reduce the frequency and severity of symptoms caused by allergic rhinitis.

However, the best control is to avoid contact with the pollen. Stay indoors as much as possible during ragweed season. Keep your windows closed at home and, if possible, use an air conditioner to cool your home. You should also keep your windows closed in the car and use the recirculate option for air conditioning. And, last but not least, tracking pollen counts can help you plan when you should avoid spending a lot of time outdoors.

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Tracking Pollen Counts

To control hay fever symptoms, it is important to monitor pollen counts so you can limit your exposure on days the counts are high. Also, hay fever medications work best if started before allergy symptoms develop. So, if you start taking allergy medications before you first encounter fall allergens, the medication can prevent the release of histamine and other chemicals. As a result, allergy symptoms are prevented from developing or are much less severe.

Pollen counts are different from pollen forecasts. Forecasts are predicted based on the previous year’s counts and current weather conditions. 

The primary culprit of fall allergies is ragweed pollen.

Pollen counts are measured with an instrument that is usually situated on a rooftop where it collects spores for a 24-hour period. The instrument is then taken to a lab where the collected material is analyzed for pollen types and concentration. The counts are reported for specific plants, such as trees, grasses, and weeds, as well as mold spores.

To keep your hay fever symptoms in check, visit the National Allergy Bureau webpage at pollen.aaaai.org to view accurate pollen counts in your area. The National Allergy Bureau is the section of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology’s Aeroallergen Network that is responsible for reporting current pollen and mold spore levels from counting stations throughout the United States.

Pollen Quiz

Airborne pollen is a natural component of the atmosphere and plays an essential role in plant reproduction; however, airborne pollen can also trigger seasonal allergic rhinitis. Take this quiz to see how much you know about pollen.

1. Pollen is only produced by flowering plants.

2. All types of pollen are found in the air.

3. Is the pollen from certain plants more allergenic than others?

4. When does pollen occur in the air?
All of the above
None of the above

5. Are there specific times of the day when pollen is most abundant in the air?
Early morning
Late at night
None of the above

6. Are pollen counts the highest in the spring?

1. False: Pollen is produced by all seed plants, which includes both flowering plants (angiosperms) and cone-bearing plants (gymnosperms). Pollen is a vital part of the reproductive cycle and is produced by the male parts of the flower or by male cones. In order for seeds to be produced, pollen must be transferred from the male part of the flower (or male cone) to the female part of the flower (or female cone).

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2. False: Pollen is transferred by wind or by insects. Insect-pollinated plants (also called entomophilous plants) have flowers that are generally large and fragrant with brightly colored petals which attract insects. The pollen tends to be large and sticky. Wind-pollinated plants (also called anemophilous plants) have flowers that are very small and inconspicuous. They produce enormous quantities of lightweight pollen that is readily dispersed by the wind.

3. Yes: Generally, the pollen from insect-pollinated plants is non-allergenic. However, there have been some cases where allergic reactions have occurred from handling or closely smelling insect-pollinated flowers. Even among wind-pollinated plants, there are some that are highly allergenic, like ragweed pollen, and others that are rarely allergenic, such as pine pollen.

4. All of the above: Pollen release is seasonal; however, the season differs for various types of plants. In general, most trees flower (and release pollen) in the spring. Grasses begin flowering in spring and continue through summer. Weeds typically begin flowering in late summer and continue through fall. There are exceptions to this since some weeds pollinate in spring and some trees release pollen in fall and even winter.

5. Mid-day: Although this may vary with local meteorology conditions, generally, pollen levels are highest from late morning to mid-afternoon. Pollen levels are usually lowest during the early morning hours.

6. Maybe: This varies depending on your location. In many areas, especially in temperate climates where there are lots of trees, total pollen counts are highest in springtime. During this time, the atmosphere often contains many different types of tree pollen. In areas with few trees, the highest pollen levels may occur in the fall when ragweed is pollinating.

Source: American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, aaaai.org

This article was published in Coping© with Allergies & Asthma magazine, Fall/Winter 2019-2020.