Pollen Allergy – Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, Prevention
Allergies is a broad term that refers to different types of reactions to harmless substances. The more common allergies that most of us know of is to airborne substances like dust and pollen. We often refer to it as hay fever which refers to allergies that arises in certain seasons, usually when the pollen count in the air is high. This is also known as seasonal allergies.
What is a pollen allergy?
A pollen allergy is a condition where the immune system abnormally reacts to the presence of pollen in the body, particularly within the respiratory tract. This abnormal immune reaction is known as an allergy and can occur with a host of harmless substances (allergens). In a pollen allergy the reaction is to tree or grass pollen which is abundant in the air in certain seasons.
Although a pollen allergy is common and not a life-threatening ailment, it can nevertheless be the cause of severe discomfort to people who suffer with this type of hypersensitivity. The reaction is sometimes mistaken for other conditions like a prolonged cold or even the flu. However, pollen allergies are not related to infections or infectious agents such as viruses.
Read more on allergic reactions.
Causes of Pollen Allergies
While pollen is the trigger for the allergic reactions, the root cause lies with a disturbance in the immune system. This is sometimes inherited. Normally immune activity is only increased when the body is under attack or a foreign substance that is potentially dangerous has been entered the system. These immune responses are necessary to protect the body and maintain health.
However, some people develop an immune-mediated hypersensitivity where the immune system abnormally reacts to harmless substances as if they pose a threat to the body. This hypersensitivity, known as an allergy, causes localized inflammation at the area where the allergen comes into contact with the body surface. In pollen allergies, it is the respiratory tract that is most affected since pollen is airborne and therefore inhaled.
When the pollen comes into contact with the mucous membrane lining the respiratory tract, it triggers an allergic reaction. Substances like histamine are released. This causes inflammation in the respiratory tract which presents as the symptoms seen in pollen allergies.
Tree, Grass, Weed and Flower Pollen
Tree, grass and weed pollen are the main triggers responsible for a pollen allergy. These plants release pollen into the air as part of its reproductive cycle. It tends to occur more in certain seasons – tree pollen is higher in spring, grass pollen in summer and weed pollen in the fall. Therefore the symptoms worsen during these seasons but in some cases the symptoms may continue to milder degree throughout the year.
Flower pollen is usually not as much of a culprit as it is sticky and not airborne to the same degree as tree and grass pollen. Nevertheless, a person who does have a pollen allergy may still react when in close contact with flower pollen. Unfortunately pollen from any plant is difficult to avoid entirely and certain regions will have a higher pollen count than others.
Signs and Symptoms
The signs and symptoms of pollen allergies are result of allergen contact with the respiratory lining. This causes inflammation and the lining produces excessive mucus, becomes red and swollen and results in a burning sensation or even pain at the site.
Most of the time pollen allergies affect the nose. It causes allergic rhinitis. When this only arises during certain seasons then it is referred to as seasonal allergic rhinitis or hay fever. Some people react to substances all year round and this is known as perennial allergic rhinitis. Pollen allergies present with:
- Runny nose
- Nasal congestion
- Watery eyes
- Red and itchy eyes
However, in some hypersensitive individuals the pollen may travel further down the airways and lead to a productive cough and wheezing. Although this is not an infection, people with allergies are often prone to viral infections like that of the common cold. These cold symptoms my further exacerbate the pollen allergy symptoms.
Read more on allergy testing.
Treatment of Pollen Allergies
Pollen allergies first need to be diagnosed and this is often done with a skin-prick allergy test. This test can also confirm the presence of allergies to other substances, including airborne allergens like dust (house dust mite specifically) or food allergens like milk. All airborne allergies are treated in largely the same way. It involves the use of the following medication:
- Antihistamines to reduce the action of histamine and thereby easing inflammation.
- Decongestants which reduces the inflammation of the lining and eases symptoms.
- Corticosteroids which are only prescribed in severe cases to reduce inflammation.
- Desensitization therapy where shots of the causative substance in minute amounts is administered in the form of injections.
Sometimes antibiotics may be prescribed. This is not for treating the allergy but any secondary bacterial infection that is more likely to arise when the allergies flare up.
Prevention of Pollen Allergies
Prevention is always advisable but it is impossible to totally avoid contact with pollen. Desensitizatio therapy also aims to prevent allergic reactions in the future. By administering small amounts of the allergen under the skin, desensitization therapy allows the body to be exposed to the substance and adapt to not overreacting to it.
Other lifestyle measures are also needed for prevention. While it may not entirely prevent an allergy, it can reduce the severity and minimize the frequency of reactions.
- One of the best ways to prevent an allergic reaction is to take your allergy medication before symptoms even arise. It should be used during seasons where allergies are more likely to occur.
- Avoid activities in areas with dense vegetation, be it walk through a local park or hiking through the woods.
- Shut the windows and minimize flow of air from the outside into the home. Where possible, use a special allergy filter (like a HEPA filter) in the air conditioner to filter out the airborne pollen.
- Do not hang clothes outside to dry. Pollen my stick to it and then be carried into the house or trigger a person who wears the clothes. Rather use an electric dryer during these seasons.
- Minimize exposure to dust and pet hair/fur during these periods. While the pollen my the trigger during certain seasons these other airborne allergens can worsen the reaction if a person is sensitive to it.