In this article, you will learn about seasonal outdoor allergies and their causes, as well as the best treatment options for preventing and managing symptoms.
Section 1. What are Seasonal Allergies?
The changing of the seasons is often a time that many people look forward to. However for some, these times are marked with irritating symptoms resulting from seasonal allergies. The term "seasonal allergies", also known as "seasonal allergic rhinitis" describes the release of mold spores and pollen from flowers, plants, weeds and grass. This process is known as "pollination" and is critical to the spread and growth of plants year after year.
Although pollination is necessary for the continuation of plant life- from which we benefit, it can cause extremely irritating symptoms in many people. For people suffering from pollination allergies- also called ragweed, their immune system has developed antibodies to the pollen emitted by these plants and when they come into contact with them, an allergic reaction ensues. Often people will describe seasonal allergies as feeling like a cold- complete with runny eyes and nose, itchy throat, redness and puffiness. These are all a result of histamine and other chemicals released by the body in response to the mold or pollen.
Section 2. Causes of Seasonal Allergies
In this section, let's break down the process a bit to see exactly how allergies develop. We've established that mold spores and pollen from plants and flowers can cause immune system reactions in some people, causing allergy symptoms. To understand exactly how this occurs, it's important to learn just how pollen and mold spreads, as detailed below.
Pollen is essentially the sperm of plants and is present in both flowering plants, as well as plants whose seeds grow inside of cones. Each plant has both male and female reproductive organs. The female organ is called the pistil and is the bulb or gourd-like section at the center of a flower. In the base of the pistil is the ovary, which holds potential seeds that must be fertilized with pollen.
The stamen is the male reproductive organ and produces the microspores (pollen) that are made by the male part of the plant and are deposited into the female pistil for fertilization. In an open flower, these are the thin, stalks with a fuzzy, often colorful substance on the tip that may rub off when touched. In order for the fertilization process to take place, pollen is transferred from the stamen to the pistil in one of two ways.
Seed bearing plants are classified as either Anemophilous, which means that their pollen is carried to the pistil by the wind. To ensure pollination, these types of plants contain a high amount of pollen and it is relatively light, which allows it to be carried on the wind very easily. In contrast, Entomophilous plants are those whose pollen must be transferred by insects. These insects land on flowers to drink their nectar and as they move about on the plant, inadvertently transfer pollen from the stamen to the pistil. Also, these same creatures can spread pollen between different flowers as they move from one to another.
So, what does this have to do with allergies?
Well pollination of plants is usually seasonal, with the peak seasons being spring and fall- although different plant varieties may pollinate at different times within the general season. During these specific times of the year, plants are either beginning to bloom, or shedding pollen and preparing for reproductive hibernation for the winter. Because of the increased reproductive activity of plants, grass, trees and flowers, the pollen count is very high and agitates allergies more so than in the winter and summer. "Pollen count" is an index that tells how much pollen is present in a cubic meter of air and what type of pollen it is. When the count is higher, people who suffer from ragweed will experience increased symptoms. However, checking the index (published by the national weather service) and preparing yourself beforehand can help reduce symptoms.
Mold is a fungus found both indoors and outdoors and comes in hundreds of different varieties. However, the ones most responsible for allergic reactions are: Alternaria, Aspergillus, Cladosporium and Penicillium. The allergic reaction is the result of inhaling mold spores- the single celled reproductive agents of mold that are released into the air.
For the most part, mold is looked upon unfavorably. However, it does have a beneficial role in the great outdoors. In nature, mold performs the important role of helping fallen leaves and branches decompose and return to the earth. Mold can commonly be found anywhere there is rotting wood, shade, soil and vegetation. However, in an indoor environment, mold is obviously less welcome. Mold thrives in dark, damp and warm areas and mold spores floating through the air are very attracted to water. As a result broken pipes and leaks can provide a fertile breeding ground for mold if not fixed immediately. Mold can also be found in old walls, carpets that have been wet and not dried completely and in piles of dead leaves. It is important for someone with a mold allergy to eliminate any damp areas where mold can grow. Indoor mold can occur year round, as long as the conditions are right. Additional areas to be careful of include:
- air conditioners
- barns or stables
- crawl spaces
- garbage containers
- old foam rubber pillows
- places with standing water
- pool houses
- summer cabins that have been closed up
- under sinks
Section 3. Seasonal Allergy Symptoms
The symptoms of pollen and mold allergies are similar, although mold can be more severe at times if left untreated. Typically, people who have seasonal allergies experience symptoms similar to that of a cold- red nose, runny eyes and mouth, itchy throat and cough. This is a result of the histamine and other chemicals that are activated once pollen and mold antibodies are released in the body. Common symptoms include:
- Watery eyes and runny nose
- Sneezing and congestion
- Itchy eyes
- Itchy skin
As you can see, many of the common symptoms of seasonal allergies are similar to that of a cold. However, a few things will allow you to differentiate and consider getting tested for allergies. One is that the symptoms of a cold usually resolve within a week or two at most. However, allergies usually at the same times each year and can last anywhere from 6-12 weeks, which reflects the pollination season. Another way to tell the difference is that a cold usually comes with general muscle aches and pains, but that would not be the case with allergies. In the case of mold allergies, ongoing exposure can lead to the developing or worsening of asthma.
If you suspect that you may be experiencing the symptoms of seasonal allergies, tests can be run to confirm. In addition to a specialist evaluating your symptoms, there are two ways that allergies are confirmed
- A drop of a purified liquid form of the allergen is dropped onto the skin and the area is pricked with a small pricking device.
- A small amount of allergen is injected just under the skin. This test stings a little but isn't extremely painful. After about 15 minutes, if a lump surrounded by a reddish area appears (like a mosquito bite) at the injection site, the test is positive.
Section 4. Prevention and Treatment of Seasonal Allergies
Although seasonal allergies have the ability to make the transitional seasons very uncomfortable for some, there are ways to minimize the severity and frequency of symptoms. There is no known cure for these types of allergies; rather the focus is on avoiding allergens, as well as proactive and reactive pharmaceutical treatments.
Because allergies are a reaction to the pollen and spores of plants and mold, reducing the amount you come into contact with is the most effective means of minimizing allergy symptoms. Below are some recommendations for doing so:
- Check the local weather forecast for the pollen count. If it is high, you may want to stay indoors or take your allergy medication before going out.
- Use air conditioning, instead of leaving windows open in the summer.
- Always wash your hands after coming in from outdoors, especially before touching your eyes or nose.
- Hire someone else to do yard work and mow the lawn.
- Remove any old clothes, carpets or other items that could be harboring mold.
- Regularly have someone remove any piles of old leaves or rotting wood.
- Use a dehumidifier in the house to minimize moisture
- Regularly change air conditioner filters.
- Use a HEPA filter in the house to catch many common allergens, including pollen, pet dander, dust mites and tobacco smoke. There are also vacuum cleaners that come equipped with HEPA filters.
In addition to the above preventative measures, allergy medications can be taken in anticipation of an allergy attack, or afterwards to minimize symptoms. The most common medications for controlling the symptoms of seasonal allergies are antihistamines. These work to inhibit the production of histamine- a chemical produced by cells in response to antibodies that attack specific allergens. The histamine then causes a reaction in the skin and mucous membranes (eyes, mouth, nose, throat), which we label as allergy symptoms. Antihistamines inhibit the production of histamine, which prevents this chain reaction. Some well-known oral antihistamine medications include Claritin, Benadryl and Zyrtec.
Oral decongestants, such as Sudafed may help to unblock and move out congestion in the nose and chest. Decongestants are also available as a nasal spray, but should not be used over the long term, as they can cause potential side effects. Nasal Sprays containing Cromolyn sodium can be beneficial when used before symptoms start. Also, nasal steroids can help to decrease inflammation, swelling, and mucus production.
Immunotherapy (allergy shots) is a newer option, but it is not yet widely prescribed. This therapy changes the response of the immune system to allergens, thus staving off an allergic attack before it happens. Some natural and alternative remedies for allergies include rinsing your nose with a saline solution made from distilled water and salt, which flushes out the allergens and clears out mucous. Also, tablets made from a European herb butterbur (Petasites hybridus) have been shown to be as effective as antihistamines, without the common side effect of sleepiness. Grape seed extract has also been shown to have benefits in relieving allergy symptoms.
Seasonal allergies are caused by the pollination of plants and flowers that occurs during specific times of the year, in addition to mold that can grow both in and outdoors. Symptoms can be very irritating; however, with good preventative and post episodic care, they can be minimized.
Dust Mites and Pet Dander
Section 1. Dust Mites
Dust mites are microscopic members of the arachnoid family- relatives to spiders and ticks. They are less than a fourth of a milliliter long and are responsible for year-long allergic reactions to those who are sensitive to them.
Interestingly enough, it is not the dust mites that people are allergic to, but more often it is their droppings. Dust mites feed on particles of human and pet skin that is routinely being shed, providing an abundance of nourishment for these small creatures. Their droppings contain a specific protein that triggers allergies in many humans and because they cohabitate with us so well, this is a very common allergy to have.
Dust mites live in warm and humid areas, which provide an abundance of human skin cells for consumption. Their favorite hiding places include carpets, beds, couches and other high-dust areas. One gram of dust can contain over 18,000 mites. And with each mite producing between 4 and 50 dropping pellets each day, this adds up to a very high amount of allergenic material in the house, which you can't even see! Some additional facts about dust mites:
- They cannot thrive in cool, dry environments. Rather, they prefer a humidity level of greater than 50% and more than 80% is ideal.
- July and August is peak dust mite season due to high humidity levels.
- Dust mites often live on stuffed animals and blankets and can cause allergies in children.
- Dust mites are blind, but can recognize their own droppings (which humans are allergic to) and avoid eating them as they scavenge for skin shavings to eat.
- It is possible to one single room to contain millions of dust mites.
Symptoms of Dust Mite Allergies
For many people, their immune system has created antibodies to dust mite droppings, resulting in allergic reactions. The symptoms of this type of allergy are often year-round and mimic that of a cold- frequent sneezing, a runny, stuffy, itchy nose and irritated eyes. Also, for some sufferers, a dust mite allergy can prompt the development or worsening of asthma, as the inhaled particles of droppings and decaying dust mite bodies can irritate the throat and lungs. Some people also develop eczema, which is linked to asthma and immune system irregularities. The most common symptoms of dust mite allergies include:
- Runny nose
- Itchy, red or watery eyes
- Nasal congestion
- Itchy nose, roof of mouth or throat
- Postnasal drip
- Facial pressure and pain
- Swollen, blue-colored skin under your eyes
- In a child, frequent upward rubbing of the nose
Additionally, if you develop dust mite related asthma, you may experience difficulty breathing, chest pain, wheezing and trouble sleeping. If you have any of the above symptoms for more than a week and it does not seem to be a cold, see your doctor for more evaluation. They will perform a physical examination to look for indicators of airborne allergies, such as your nasal passages being swollen and pale. If necessary, a skin prick test or blood test (rast test) may be performed to pinpoint the exact allergen.
Treating Dust Mite Allergies
Dust mites are a fact of life and are usually present anywhere that humans live. However, you can do things to minimize the mite population in your home and thus reduce the frequency and severity of allergic reactions. Below are some of the best ways to manage dust mites:
- One of the best ways to minimize reactions is to cover pillows, beds and sofas in dust mite or allergy covers. These are tightly woven bed and furniture covers that seal in the existing mites and don't allow your skin particles to penetrate the covers. This essentially starves them.
- Invest in a dehumidifier to reduce indoor moisture levels.
- Shower before bed using a loofah or brush to remove dead skin.
- If you have severe reactions to dust mites, you may want to consider removing any wall to wall carpeting (in which the mites hide) and installing hardwood flooring instead.
- Wash all blankets, towels and bedding in hot water (above 60 degrees Celsius), which kills the mites and their eggs.
- Place soft toys, such as teddy bears in the freezer every few months, then thaw and wash. This kills any mite colonies and minimizes childhood allergies.
- Use a vacuum equipped with a HEPA filter to help remove live bugs, as well as their carcasses and droppings.
In addition to the preventative measures above, some people will need to take medication to control their symptoms. The medicines prescribed for dust mite allergies are similar to those for seasonal outdoor allergies. Antihistamines, decongestants and nasal steroids can all help to relieve symptoms.
Section 2. Pet Allergies
As loveable as furry pets are, they can cause serious allergies in some children and adults. It is estimated that approximately 15% of all people have some form of animal allergy. A whopping 11million people are allergic to cats alone! But it is not the animals themselves that are allergens, but the proteins found in their dead skin (dander), saliva, sweat and urine. The immune system classifies these proteins as allergens and produces antibodies to attack them, causing allergic reactions similar to that of dust mites and pollen.
Dead skin cells are the most irritating allergen when it comes to pets and any animal with hair will produce dander. However by far, the most problematic animals are dogs, cats, horses and rodents. Dander is such a big issue because unlike the other pet allergens, it can easily float through the air, stick to furniture and bedding and even your clothes. To combat this, some people may look to acquire breeds that have less hair or shed less. And while this may reduce the dander somewhat, even a hairless dog will shed skin and can potentially cause symptoms. They can also cause allergies via their saliva and sweat.
Rodents, as well as rabbits are also high allergy animals. Rabbits shed dander and also can cause allergies from proteins in their saliva and hair. High allergy rodents include mice, gerbils, hamsters and guinea pigs. Their dander, saliva and even urine can cause allergies. Also, it is important to change the sawdust or shavings at the bottom of the cage frequently, as the allergens fall there and can then be stirred up and carried through the air when the animal moves around. For those with asthma or other breathing problems, pets may worsen the condition.
Managing Pet Allergies
For some people, their reaction to animals does not allow them to have a pet at all. For others, lifestyle modifications and medication allows them the pleasure of having a pet with minimal to moderate allergic reactions. Symptoms include runny eyes and nose, sneezing and wheezing, itching and even hives. The only way to not to be affected at all is to completely avoid the animals that cause you problems. Outside of that, the following can help you to coexist with your furry friends more harmoniously.
- Keeping pets outside for the majority of the time can reduce the amount of dander in the house. Also, removing carpets and keeping pets in rooms with hardwood floors can also help.
- Never allow pets to sleep in the room or on the bedding of someone with allergies. If they happen to wander in at night, wash all bedding (and rugs if possible) in hot water.
- Train pets to stay off of couches, tables and counters and utilize allergy covers where possible.
- Dust and vacuum frequently to remove pet dander. This is best done when the person with the allergy is away, so they do not inhale particles that may be stirred up while cleaning. Invest in a HEPA filter for the vacuum.
- Bathing your pet frequently (twice a week) can reduce allergy causing dander considerably.
- Wash your hands frequently, especially after playing with pets.
As with other allergies we've studied, the medications to manage pet allergies focus on reducing histamine levels and immune system activity. Antihistamines are the primary form of treatment, in addition to nasal sprays and inhaled steroid medications. For severe cases, allergy shots may be administered on a weekly or biweekly basis.
Dust mites and pets produce indoor allergens that can cause a high level of discomfort for people who are allergic. The best method of treatment is avoidance, but in reality this can be very hard to do. By accessorizing and cleaning the home in a way that inhibits the retention of allergens, some relief is available. For troublesome cases, allergy medication can often provide much welcomed relief.
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