Pollen Allergies: Questions and Answers
About Pollen Allergy
Q: What is hay fever?
A: Hay fever is a commonly used term for pollen allergy, a type of seasonal
allergic rhinitis (runny nose).
Q: Do pollen allergies occur only in the spring?
A: No. Pollen grains can be dispersed into the air in the spring, summer
and fall, depending on the type of tree, grass or weed. For example, ragweed
is a common cause of pollen allergy reactions in the fall. In mild climates,
some plants pollinate in the winter as well.
Q: Why are some people allergic to pollen while others are not?
A: People inherit a tendency to be allergic, meaning an increased likelihood
of being allergic to one or more allergens (such as pollen), although they
probably do not inherit a tendency to be allergic to any specific allergens.
Children are much more likely to develop allergies if their parents have
allergies, even if only one parent is allergic. Exposure to allergens at
certain times when the body's defenses are lowered or weakened, such as
after a viral infection or during pregnancy, also seems to contribute to
the development of allergies.
Q: Which trees and grasses produce the most allergens?
A: Plain-looking trees, grasses and weeds, which do not have showy flowers,
produce the types of pollen that most commonly cause allergic reactions.
These plants manufacture small, light, dry pollen granules that are custom-made
for wind transport. Although most allergenic pollen comes from plants that
produce it in huge quantities, it's the chemical maekup of the pollen that
determines whether it is likely to cause hay fever.
Q: Where can I get information on the pollen count
where I live?
A: The National
Allergy Bureau monitors pollen counts in many locations throughout the
United States. Their phone number for pollen counts is 1-800-9-POLLEN.
Q: What time of day and weather conditions are worst for people with
A: Generally, pollen is most abundant in the early morning, especially between
5:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. Other considerations, however, also determine exposure,
such as wind velocity. Also, rain can wash pollen out of the air for a time,
and some plants may not pollinate in damp weather.
Testing, Treatment, and Management
Q: How can I get tested to find out if I have pollen
A: A doctor can use a skin test to see if you will react to specific pollen
allergens. A diluted extract is injected under the patient's skin or is
applied to a tiny scratch or puncture made on the arm or back. Skin testing
is the most common method used to test for allergic reactions. Blood tests
are also available to determine if you have a pollen allergy.
Q: As an allergic person, is there anything I can do in my environment
and activities to minimize my reaction to pollen?
A: Avoiding exposure to pollen is the best way to decrease allergic symptoms.
- Remain indoors in the morning when outdoor pollen
levels are highest.
- Wear face masks designed to filter out pollen if
you must be outdoors.
- Keep windows closed and use the air conditioner
if possible in the house and car.
- Do not dry clothes outdoors.
- Avoid unnecessary exposure to other environmental
irritants such as insect sprays, tobacco smoke, air pollution, and fresh
tar or paint.
- Avoid mowing the grass or doing other yard work,
Q: What are the best treatments for pollen allergy?
A: The best treatment for pollen allergy is to avoid coming into contact
with pollen. Because that is usually not possible, certain medications can
control allergic reactions in most people. Several oral antihistamine medications
are available over-the-counter or by a doctor's prescription. Topical nasal
steroid sprays are anti-inflammatory drugs that stop the allergic rhinitis.
Using a combination of antihistamines and nasal steroids can effectively
treat allergic symptoms, especially in people with moderate or severe allergic
Cromolyn sodium, a nasal spray, helps prevent allergic reactions from starting.
It significantly helps some people with allergies.
Oral and nasal decongestants reduce congestion sometimes caused by the allergic
reaction. Doctors sometimes recommend their use along with an antihistamine
which controls the allergic symptoms. Nose drops and sprays, however, should
not be used for more than a few days at a time because they can lead to
even more congestion and swelling of the nasal passages.
Q: Allergy drugs make me sleepy. Is there anything I can take that won't
A: There are several non-sedating antihistamines on the market that are
available with a doctor's prescription.
Q: Can I take shots to get rid of my pollen allergy?
A: Immunotherapy, or a series of allergy shots, is the only available treatment
that has a chance of reducing allergy symptoms over the long term. About
80 percent of people with hay fever will have a significant reduction in
their symptoms and in their need for medication within 12 months of starting
Q: Do air filters help?
A: Various types of air-filtering devices made with fiberglass or electrically
charged plates may help reduce pollen allergens. An allergy specialist can
suggest which kind of filter is best for your home.
Q: Should I consider moving to another geographic area where I would
have less exposure to the trees, grasses, etc., that I am allergic to?
A: Most people who relocate to get away from the pollens that cause their
allergic symptoms find that they eventually develop allergies to the plant
pollens in the new area. In addition, other airborne allergens, such as
dust or mold, in the new area also might cause allergic rhinitis in a person.
Therefore, doctors usually do not recommmend that their patients move.
Q: What new treatments and vaccines are being studied?
A: New treatments under investigation include anti-IgE, a compound designed
to block IgE antibodies, which are produced in massive quantities by allergic
individuals. Researchers also are exploring the use of agents designed to
antagonize other molecules that participate in allergic reactions. An exciting
area of vaccine research involves the use of DNA encoding allergy-inducing
substances. Other researchers are developing allergy vaccines composed of
molecularly modified allergens.
Q: Has the number of individuals with allergies been increasing in recent
A: There are very little data available on this issue. Some researchers
hypothesize that environmental pollutants can stimulate the immune system
in such a way as to make people more vulnerable to allergies. Still, there
is insufficient evidence at this time to say that allergies have truly increased
within the population. This question requires additional study. Any increase
in new commercial products, anecdotal stories, etc., does not necessarily
mean that there is a scientifically proven increase in the rate of allergies.
Source: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, February 2000