Pollen is a very fine powder produced by trees, flowers, grasses, and weeds to fertilize other plants of the same species. It’s also one of the most common causes of allergies in the United States.
Many people have an adverse immune response when they breathe in pollen.
The immune system normally wards off illness by defending the body against harmful intruders, such as viruses and bacteria.
In people with pollen allergies, the immune system mistakenly identifies the harmless pollen as a dangerous intruder. The immune system begins to produce chemicals including histamine to fight against the pollen.
This is known as an allergic reaction, and the specific type of pollen that causes it is known as an allergen. The allergic reaction leads to numerous irritating symptoms, such as sneezing, a stuffy nose, and watery eyes.
Some people have allergy symptoms year-round, while others only have them during certain times of the year. For example, people who are sensitive to birch pollen usually have increased symptoms during the spring when birch trees are in bloom. Similarly, those with ragweed allergies are most affected during the early fall.
Once a person has developed a pollen allergy, it’s unlikely to go away. However, symptoms can be treated with medications and allergy shots. Certain lifestyle changes can also help relieve symptoms.
Did you know?
A pollen allergy may also be referred to as seasonal allergic rhinitis or hay fever.
According to the
National Health Interview Survey, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 7.2 percent of children and 7.7 percent of adults in the United States had hay fever in 2018.
There are hundreds of plant species that release pollen into the air and trigger allergic reactions.
Some common culprits are:
- birch trees
- oak trees
- ragweed plants
Birch pollen allergy
Birch pollen is one of the most common airborne allergens during the spring. As birch trees bloom, they release tiny grains of pollen that are scattered by the wind.
A single birch tree can produce 5.5 million pollen grains.
Oak pollen allergy
Like birch trees, oak trees send pollen into the air during the spring.
While oak pollen is considered to be mildly allergenic compared to the pollen of other trees, it stays in the air for longer periods of time. This can cause severe allergic reactions in some people with pollen allergies.
Grass pollen allergy
Grass is the primary trigger of pollen allergies during the spring and summer months.
There are many types of grass. Only a few of them, such as perennial rye, Bermuda grass and bluegrass, are capable of triggering allergies.
Ragweed pollen allergy
They’re the most active during the early fall months. Depending on the location, however, ragweed may begin spreading its pollen as early as August and continue into November.
The wind-driven pollen can travel hundreds of miles and survive through a mild winter.
Pollen allergy symptoms most often include:
Pollen allergies occur when your immune system mistakenly identifies pollen as a dangerous substance.
It’s unclear what causes any type of allergy, including a pollen allergy. Experts believe that genetics may play a role.
A primary care physician can usually diagnose a pollen allergy. However, they may refer you to an allergist for allergy testing to confirm the diagnosis. An allergist is someone who specializes in diagnosing and treating allergies.
Allergy testing usually involves these steps:
- You’ll be asked about your medical history and symptoms — including when they started, how long they’ve persisted, and whether they are always present or get better or worse at certain times of the year.
- They will then perform a skin prick test to determine the specific allergen that’s causing your symptoms. During the procedure, they will prick different areas of the skin and insert a small amount of various types of allergens.
- If you’re allergic to any of the substances, you’ll develop redness, swelling, and itchiness at the site within 15 to 20 minutes. You might also see a raised, round area that looks like hives.
- Allergy testing can also be performed through bloodwork.
If you still experience symptoms despite taking preventive measures, there are treatments that may help.
Several over-the-counter (OTC) allergy medications are available, including:
- antihistamines, such as cetirizine (Zyrtec) or diphenhydramine (Benadryl)
- decongestants, such as pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) or oxymetazoline (Afrin)
- medications that combine an antihistamine and a decongestant, such as loratadine/pseudoephedrine (Claritin-D) and fexofenadine/pseudoephedrine (Allegra-D)
Allergy shots may be recommended if medications are not enough to ease your symptoms.
Allergy shots are a form of immunotherapy. You receive a series of injections of the allergen. The amount of allergen in the shot gradually increases over time.
The shots modify your immune system’s response to the allergen, helping to reduce the severity of your allergic reactions. You may experience complete relief 1 year after starting allergy shots, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. Treatment may continue for a total of 3 to 5 years.
Allergy shots are not recommended for children younger than 5 years old.
A number of home remedies may also help relieve pollen allergy symptoms.
- using a squeeze bottle or neti pot to flush pollen from the nose
- trying herbs and extracts, such as PA-free butterbur (which does not contain toxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids) or spirulina
- removing and washing any clothing that’s been worn outside
- drying clothes in a dryer rather than outside on a clothing line
- using air conditioning in cars and homes
- investing in a portable high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter or dehumidifier
- vacuuming regularly with a vacuum cleaner that has a HEPA filter
The best air purifiers
Check out our reviews of the best high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) purifiers.
As with other allergies, the best way to prevent symptoms of a pollen allergy is to avoid the allergen.
Pollen is difficult to avoid, though. Still, you may be able to minimize your exposure to pollen by:
- staying indoors on dry, windy days
- having others take care of gardening or yard work during peak seasons
- wearing a dust mask when pollen counts are high
- closing doors and windows when pollen counts are high
To find out the pollen counts in your area, check an app or the weather section of your local newspaper.
Tell your doctor if your symptoms become more severe or if your allergy medications are causing unwanted side effects.
Also, consult your doctor before trying any new herbs or supplements. Some can interfere with the effectiveness of certain medications.
Pollen allergies can interrupt your everyday activities by causing sneezing, a stuffy nose, and watery eyes. Lifestyle changes and medications can help reduce these symptoms.
Avoiding the trees, flowers, grasses, and weeds that trigger your allergies is a good first step. You can do this by staying indoors when pollen levels are high, especially on windy days, or by wearing a dust mask to avoid breathing in pollen.
Medications or allergy shots can also help reduce symptoms.