Ragweed pollen is one of the leading causes of hay fever in the United States, affecting nearly one in five Americans and a whopping 85 percent of the country's 70 million allergy sufferers. The 41 species of annual ragweed (Ambrosia asteraceae) have adapted to live in climates ranging from the humid Northeast to the arid Southwest and everywhere in between. Ragweed plants are most often found in rural areas and other open spaces that get plenty of sunlight. A single plant is capable of producing up to a billion grains of pollen each season.
To make matters worse, ragweed is also one of the most tenacious allergens—its wind-driven pollen can travel hundreds of miles and survive through a mild winter. That means nearly year-round symptoms for many unlucky folks.
Ragweed allergies share symptoms with other hay fever allergens and may include:
- itchy, watery eyes
- scratchy throat
- runny nose or congestion
- sinus pressure (may cause facial pain)
- coughing or wheezing
- swollen, bluish-colored skin beneath the eyes
- decreased sense of smell or taste
Some sensitive people may develop contact dermatitis when exposed to ragweed as well. The painful, itchy rash, comprised of small bumps and blisters usually appears within 48 hours of exposure. It will usually resolve on its own within two or three weeks, provided there is no more contact with the plant.
Foods to Avoid
Some foods and herbs contain proteins similar to those in ragweed pollen and may trigger symptoms in those with a ragweed allergy, according to Leonard Bielory, M.D., director of the Asthma and Allergy Research Center at the New Jersey Medical School in Newark. Symptoms related to food allergies will typically be worse during ragweed season. You should contact an allergist if you notice your mouth tingling or itching after consuming any of the following:
- honeydew melons
Because ragweed pollen is so pervasive, avoidance—which is usually the first line of defense against most allergies—is nearly impossible. Ragweed allergy sufferers tend to rely on medications more than those with other types of allergies. Drugs that can provide much-needed relief include:
- antihistamines such as Claritin or Benadryl (for those with more serious allergies, begin taking two weeks before the beginning of ragweed season and every day until the first frost)
- decongestants such as Sudafed and Afrin
- combination medications which include an antihistamine and decongestant, such as Actifed and Claritin-D
- if over-the-counter medications prove ineffective, contact your doctor about prescription drugs or allergy shots
- over-the-counter hydrocortisone creams will usually relieve symptoms of contact dermatitis
Other steps allergy sufferers can take in the war against ragweed include:
- running the air conditioner longer than usual (well into fall)
- avoiding going outside in the morning when pollen counts are at their highest
- purchasing a portable high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter or dehumidifier
- vacuuming weekly with a cleaner that has a HEPA filter (allergy sufferers should delegate this task)
Ragweed allergies and colds often share symptoms, so it's possible that a person may begin taking Echinacea in hopes of relieving the latter condition and end up making allergy symptoms much worse. According to a 2010 study published in The Annals of Internal Medicine, Echinacea shows little to no benefit even for colds and, because it may interact with certain medications, it should be avoided.
Ragweed Allergy Season
Depending on the location, ragweed may begin spreading its pollen as early as the last week of July and continue into the middle of October. In most places, it begins in mid-August. Many people with ragweed allergies have reported a flare-up in symptoms in the springtime as well. Sure enough, ragweed pollen has been found to be capable of surviving through the winter—only to be picked up by spring winds and carried into the noses of already-beleaguered allergy sufferers.
Ragweed Allergy Map
Ragweed can be found in all 50 states as well as in many places in Canada and temperate regions of South America. Daily ragweed forecasts for many places in the United States can be found at weather.com, pollen.com or in local local television, radio, or newspaper reports.