Ragweed is one of the most common sources of the pollen behind seasonal allergies. Credit: Daniel Hulshizer / AP

Nearly 20 million people in the country suffer to some degree from seasonal allergies, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Call it what you want — allergies, hay fever or allergic rhinitis — the stuffy head, itchy eyes, painful sinuses and skin irritations can all flair up depending on what’s in bloom in your region.

Knowing a bit about seasonal allergies in general and specific allergies, in particular, can go a long way in keeping any allergy season bearable.

What are seasonal allergies?

Seasonal allergies happen when the body’s immune system goes into overdrive and overreacts to something in the environment, according to the American College of Allergies, Asthma and Immunology. From early spring to the first frosts of fall, the most common cause of seasonal allergic reactions is plant pollen.

When the pollen enters the body through the nose, mouth or eyes the body produces histamines to attack and kill off these invaders. In a non-allergic person, this all goes on quietly with no physical reaction. But for those people who have a heightened response to the release of histamines the body can react with sniffles, sneezes, itchy eyes, difficulty breathing, wheezing or inability to swallow.

What is pollen?

Pollen is a tiny, even microscopic, powdery substance that fertilizes plants for reproduction. It’s in flowers, trees, grasses and weeds. For many of these plants, the pollen is dispersed by wind and air currents which can blow them right up your nose, into your mouth or eyes and onto your clothes and skin.

As the term “seasonal allergies” implies, an individual’s reactions to plant pollen can change or even vanish depending on what is in bloom at any particular time or season. So if you know you have allergies, it’s important to pay attention to what exactly is blooming and casting off pollen around you.

Know the pollen count

You can keep track of how much of what kind of pollen is in the air in your region by checking the daily pollen count. A pollen count measures the number of grains of specific plan pollen in a cubic meter of air. The higher the count, the more pollen is out there and the more likely it is to trigger seasonal allergies.

Online resources like pollen.com or weather.com issue daily reports on what plants are producing pollen and at what levels. The counts range numerically from zero to 12, which is very high.

The pollen count is affected by the weather. The airborne pollen grains can travel much farther and faster the lower the humidity and the higher the wind speeds meaning a higher count. On rainy or days with high humidity, the pollen is damp and heavy so it stays on the plant or on the ground and resulting in a lower pollen count.

What are some of the common pollen producers?

Allergy season starts for some in April or May in Maine where most of the spring pollen comes from trees like pine, maple or oak. Those are quickly followed by dandelion pollen which often gets a boost when people mow their lawns and stir up that pollen.

As summer moves on, the grasses start to release pollen.

If it’s July, August or September in Maine and you are dealing with seasonal allergies, the likely culprit is ragweed. Seventeen species of ragweed grow in North America but the only one in the state is common ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia). This annual grows up to 3 feet high with small green flowers.

It grows in fields, alongside the road, in parks and can even pop up between cracks in pavement or concrete. A single ragweed plant can produce up to 1 billion tiny pollen grains. It’s one of the primary sources of allergic reactions in the country.

Surviving seasonal allergies

One of the best ways to avoid seasonal allergies is to avoid whatever it is you are allergic to. Depending on what that is, however, that strategy may not be practical. But try to avoid as best you can walking directly through or under any plant that is blooming or dispersing pollen.

Matthew Derosby, a physician assistant at Northern Light Health Family Medicine of Brewer, suggested if you have gone outside and come into contact with the pollen, remove your clothes when you get inside and hop into the shower to rinse off.

Inside the home avoid opening windows if there is a breeze that can blow any pollen inside and instead use an air conditioning unit to cool and filter indoor air if needed.

From a medical standpoint, there are several over-the-counter antihistamine drops, pills and ointments that offer relief from seasonal allergy symptoms.

“The thing to remember with these is they need to be used every day and overtime to reduce the symptoms and then prevent them,” Debrosy said. “That is the mistake I see people make — they buy the product, use it a couple of days and when it’s not working they give up. You have to use them a full two weeks before you see the effect.”

For immediate relief, there are over-the-counter oral medications — both sedating like Benadryl and non-sedating like Claratin or Zyrtec — that reduce symptoms throughout the body.

While not tested by the U.S. Federal Drug Administration, there are some home remedies that people swear by. The most common is eating honey produced by local bees. The reasoning is that by ingesting honey made with nectar the bees collected from allergy-triggering plants. Debrosy said he can’t speak to the medicinal value of honey, but said he has patients who swear by it.

Other home remedies include eating fruits like papaya or pineapples that contain the enzyme bromelain. Some natural healers believe the enzyme reduces swelling, thereby opening up nasal passages. Anecdotal evidence has also shown that probiotics like those in yogurt can help reduce the symptoms of seasonal allergies. However, there isn’t data to confirm the effectiveness of natural remedies.

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.