By Dr. Max Hammond
Are you suffering from a stuffy, runny nose, sneezing, incessant coughing and red, watery eyes? If you don’t have a fever or a sore throat, it’s probably not a cold or COVID 19. You are probably fighting with seasonal allergies brought on by pollen from our beautiful trees, grasses, weeds – and indoors, mold. The telltale sign is the symptoms – cough, sneezing, watery eyes – improve when you move out of the area of exposure: indoors, away from the pollen OR outdoors, away from the mold.
Thirty percent of North Carolinians experience these kinds of symptoms at some time during the year because North Carolina has three overlapping allergy seasons. The tree allergy season usually runs from March to June. The trees most likely to cause symptoms are birch, beech, hickory, and oak. The grasses allergy season runs from mid-spring to fall, being heaviest in April/May. The most common grasses giving the most trouble are tall fescue, Kentucky Bluegrass, and ryegrass. The flowers of North Carolina aren’t likely to cause a problem because they produce less pollen. But the weed allergy season runs from August to the first frost. The weeds most likely to cause problems in North Carolina are plantain, dock, and the ever-present ragweed, which appears also along the East Coast and in the Mid-West.
Of course, North Carolina isn’t the only area of the country “blessed” with pollen-producing plants. The South and Southeast experiences early springs and hot summers, resulting in a longer growing season and more pollen for a longer time. But Southern states aren’t the worst place for allergies. This designation is reserved for Texas, and the Midwest, and California where the hot winds blow and the air is dry.
In fact, the warming effects of climate change are creating these same conditions in previously untouched parts of the United States. Therefore, many areas that experienced minimal allergy difficulties have seen an uptick as spring comes earlier, plants grow larger and mature earlier, and the growing season is prolonged. In addition, semi-tropical plants of Florida and the deep South with high pollen production are gradually moving northward, following the increasing warmth.
The winter months may not bring relief as this can be one more allergy season. In a house that is closed up to keep out the cold, dust mites, animal dander, and mold can build up to levels that set off the same allergy symptoms.
The first line of defense against allergies is avoidance. Many people with severe symptoms intentionally live where the allergy exposure is less; some people actually move season to season to avoid the various allergy seasons.
For those who can’t afford to constantly move, the next line of defense is protection from exposure where they live. Masks that keep out viral particles – the KN95 variety, the ones with adjustable nose bands, and the tight fit around the face and chin – also keep out pollen and mold – which are much larger particles than viruses. Wearing a mask whenever in an area of exposure – the garden, the out-of-doors, or in the particular allergy season – can bring significant relief. Be sure to change the mask daily or wash it daily, if it’s washable. Pollen will stick to the outside of the mask and transfer to the hands if touched. Glasses with the side panels can help protect the eyes if that is the major allergy symptom spot. Once back inside, change to other clothes and shoes as pollen can stick to these also. Those with severe symptoms may need to shower and wash the hair as pollen can especially be carried indoors in the hair.
Also consider the time of day, the weather, and the pollen count before going outside. Pollen counts are usually highest 5 to 10 am and 4 pm to dusk. Windy, dry weather is a good time to stay inside, as pollen can travel for miles on the wind. Rainy weather, on the other hand, washes the atmosphere and lowers the pollen count. Consult one of several websites that post the pollen count for the day and the specific count for the most prevalent pollen sources in the area and adjust outdoor activity accordingly. All of these websites have excellent information: Pollen.com (excellent – with ads); weather.com (the weather channel – with ads); and the website for the N. Carolina Department of Air Quality (NCDAQ) (xapps.ncdenr.org – Dept. of the Envir. – harder to navigate with no ads).
For those with indoor allergies, consider the following: Find the source of the mold and kill it with bleach. (Be careful. Bleach requires thoughtful use.) Look carefully for sources of moisture in the house (leaking pipes, sweating surfaces, leaking roofs) and fix them. Set up a humidity control system in the home and keep the control set at 40% to reduce mold and mildew. Zip up mattresses in plastic dust mite covers. Vacuum carpets at least once weekly. Keep windows closed and set up a HEPA air filter system to clear out pet dander and plant pollens.
Finally, medicines can greatly lessen the symptoms of seasonal allergies. (Always consult with the PCP before self-treating.) Steroid nasal sprays are a good first line, but they should be used daily and started at least a week before the particular allergy season of difficulty begins because they take time to build up their effectiveness. These actually stop the immune response which causes the symptoms. When these are not enough, antihistamines can be added, preferably those that do not cause drowsiness. However, antihistamines can interact with other medicines and have significant side effects, especially with large prostates and hearts with arrythmias – and antihistamines only relieve the symptoms. They do not directly treat the cause of the symptoms.
Learn the allergens causing symptoms and avoid the areas of exposure. Be prepared to take action before the symptoms start. No one likes to deal with a drippy, plugged-up nose.