Pollen is far and away the leading allergen in Western countries. Pollen allergies—also known as “hay fever” or “allergic rhinitis”—affects between 10 and 30 percent of adults and up to 40 percent of children in the United States.
Hay fever is an immune reaction to pollen that typically manifests as cold-like symptoms such as congestion, sneezing, and runny nose. Some people suffer from hay fever year-around, while for others, symptoms get worse at certain times of the year. For example, someone with sensitivities to birch pollen will usually have increased symptoms during the spring when trees are in bloom. Likewise, those with grass allergies will have a tougher time during the summer, while autumn will hit ragweed allergy sufferers the hardest.
For those with milder symptoms, hay fever may be no more than an annoyance. However, for others, allergies to pollen can erode a person's quality of life, affecting everything from their ability to participate in outdoor activities to their performance at work and school. Hay fever symptoms typically begin in childhood and diminish slowly over a person's lifetime.
Hay fever symptoms usually begin immediately following an allergy sufferer's exposure to the offending pollen and most often include:
- sinus pressure (which may cause facial pain)
- runny or itchy nose
- watery, itchy eyes
- scratchy throat
- swollen, bluish-colored skin beneath the eyes
- decreased sense of taste or smell
Types of Pollen Allergies
Birch Pollen Allergy
Birch pollen is the most common airborne allergen during the spring. As the trees bloom, clouds of barely visible male pollen grains—between two and five million grains from a single birch catkin— are scattered by the wind, many traveling distances of up to 100 yards from the parent tree.
Grass Pollen Allergy
Despite the fact that it's unrelated to hay, “hay fever” got its name because so many people came down with symptoms during the annual summer hay harvest. The real cause of the spike in symptoms during the summer are grass pollens—and they’re responsible for some of the most severe and difficult-to-treat symptoms.
However, grass allergy sufferers may have reason to celebrate. A 2012 study published in the The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that a specific type of sublingual immunotherapy has proven highly effective in relieving symptoms of grass allergy when other treatments have proven ineffective.
Oak Pollen Allergy
Like birch, oak pollen is active during the spring. While oak pollen is only considered moderately allergenic when compared to other pollens, it hangs around a lot longer than that of other trees—up to two months in some areas—making it a significant problem for some hay fever and asthma sufferers.
Bee Pollen Allergy
At the same time, some people have been touting bee pollen as a miracle cure for certain types of allergies, researchers have discovered that bee pollen itself can be a serious—and sometimes dangerous—allergen in its own right.
In one 2009 study, a four-year-old boy tested positive for a bee pollen allergy after developing life-threatening symptoms. A person considering treating hay fever symptoms with bee pollen (available in health food stores in granule, pill, or tincture form) should consult their doctor first.
As with other allergies, the best treatment is to avoid the allergen. However, in the case of pollen allergies, this tactic often fails miserably as it’s nearly impossible to avoid in the environment. There are a few things hay fever sufferers can do to their minimize exposure, including:
- staying indoors on dry, windy days
- having others take care of any yard work and gardening chores during peak seasons
- removing and wash any clothing that has been worn outside
- showering when coming in from outside
- wearing a dust mask when pollen counts are high (check local reports on the TV, radio, newspaper or Internet)
- closing doors and windows when pollen counts are high
- using air conditioning in cars and homes
- investing in a portable high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter, dehumidifier, or both
- vacuuming regularly with a cleaner that has a HEPA filter
- taking allergy medications before symptoms start if high pollen counts are in the forecast
If prevention doesn't relieve all of the symptoms of a pollen allergy, there are several over-the-counter medications that may help, including:
- antihistamines (such as Zyrtec or Benadryl)
- decongestants (such as Sudafed or Afrin)
- combination medications (antihistamine and decongestant) such as Actifed or Claritin-D
In addition to medications, a number of home remedies may help to relieve hay fever symptoms. These include:
- nasal irrigation: using a squeeze bottle or neti pot can flush pollen from the nose
- bee pollen: however, see warning above
- extracts: such as butterbur or spirulina
Certain extracts react with medications. You should consult your doctor before taking any alternative therapies. An allergist should be consulted if symptoms are severe or medications are causing unwanted side-effects. People with year-around hay fever may want to consider immunotherapy (allergy shots) to control their symptoms.