The seasonal attack of airborne allergens

Summer is off to an early start and that means warm weather’s airborne allergens are ready to strike. Perhaps you know already from years of experience what the allergy season has in store for you. Or, maybe you are just starting to figure it out based on how you felt last summer. Either way, there are some simple steps you can take now to make your summer more comfortable and symptom-free.

airborne allergens

What’s in the air?

Hay fever or allergic rhinitis can occur year-round, but when people only get hay fever in warm weather, it’s called seasonal allergic rhinitis. The seasonal variety is often caused by pollen, a fine powdery substance produced at various times by trees and other plants. In fact, pollen from ragweed causes 75% of all hay fevers. Spores from molds and fungi are the two other top seasonal outdoor substances that can trigger an allergic attack. When people who are allergic to these airborne triggers breathe them, the result is hay fever, a condition that affects mouths, throats, eyes or ears.

“Nearly a third of the population has hay fever, which is essentially a nasal inflammation causing an itchy, sneezy, runny, stuffy nose,” says James Baldwin, M.D., associate professor and chief of the U-M Division of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. “Many people just wait until they experience symptoms and then run to the drug store for a remedy. However, if you understand what is triggering your allergies and when and how the remedies differ in their action, you’ll have an easier time managing your symptoms.”

Symptoms that you have seasonal allergic rhinitis or hay fever include:

  • Sneezing
  • Coughing or sneezing
  • Itchy eyes, nose or mouth
  • Stuffy nose
  • Sinus pressure, plugged ears or ear aches

Plant growing cycles impact allergies, too. Some hay fever sufferers are only allergic to one or two kinds of pollen, so may only feel uncomfortable for a few weeks each year. Most areas of the United States have three pollen seasons:

  • Early spring: trees are pollinating at this time, with birch, cedar and cottonwood as the major contributors of airborne pollen.
  • Summer: Grasses release pollen, too. These include lawns, ornamental grasses and crops like rye or Timothy.
  • Fall: Weeds rule as the pollen source when summer comes to an end, and ragweed is the primary culprit. Ragweed can be found in most, but not all, corners of the United States.

“For people with nasal allergies, it’s a good idea to keep updated on the pollen count, much like someone with a lung disorder would pay attention to the ozone levels. Many weather programs, whether on television or on the Internet, do a good job of broadcasting the daily local pollen count in warm weather. There are applications to download for smart phones, too,” says Baldwin.

Don’t give allergens a ride inside

Here are some things you can do to be more comfortable and symptom-free this summer.

  • Stay indoors if the pollen count is very high. Keep windows shut.
  • When to go outside? When it’s cool; after a rain; when the wind is calm.
  • Mowing your lawn? Wear a mask and protective glasses.
  • Meanwhile, back at the house: toss your clothes in the wash, take a shower and wash your hair after being outdoors.
  • Changing your furnace filter helps you breathe cleaner air. Change it per factory recommendations, and consider using one of the filters designed to trap allergens.
  • If you have air conditioning and there is a ‘recirculate’ setting, use it so as not to draw in outside air that’s full of allergens.

Treatment options

“There are essentially three treatment modalities for allergic rhinitis: Avoidance (sometimes known as environmental controls), medications, and allergy shots (immunotherapy). I recommend a step-by-step approach that leads someone with hay fever through gradually more complex interventions. The idea is to keep moving forward through the list of options until you find a treatment or treatment combination that works,” Baldwin says.

Using a stepped approach, the first thing anyone should do is to know which allergens will trigger your hay fever and to take the right precautions to reduce exposure to them. If that doesn’t control symptoms satisfactorily, talk to a health professional to identify over-the-counter treatments that are appropriate and safe. Options include tablets by mouth, liquids, nasal sprays, neti pots and eye drops.

However, allergy symptoms can get worse gradually and people may simply resign themselves to living with worsening symptoms. But this happens with a cost: quality of life can be severely reduced.

“If you’ve tried all these steps, but still feel pretty miserable from hay fever, it’s time to talk to an allergist, that is, a doctor specializing in the diagnoses and treatment of allergies. These allergy experts can diagnose the cause of your particular symptoms and use vaccines, allergy shots, or other special therapies to help prevent or control your symptoms, ” says Baldwin.

Take the next step:

James BaldwinJames Baldwin, M.D., is chief of the Division of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, director of the Allergy Immunology Training Program, and research director of the Food Allergy Center. A member of the U-M faculty since 1994, he is board-certified in allergy and clinical immunology. He has broad clinical interests, including allergic rhinitis, anaphylaxis, angioedema, asthma, drug allergies, urticaria, immune deficiencies and aspirin exacerbated respiratory disease.


new_logos_180x1806For more than 160 years, the University of Michigan Health System has been a national leader in advanced patient care, innovative research to improve human health and comprehensive education of physicians and medical scientists. The three U-M hospitals have been recognized numerous times for excellence in patient care, including a #1 ranking in Michigan and national rankings in many specialty areas by U.S. News & World Report.