By Dr. Douglas Nesbit
Well, the spring pollen season is here. Billowy clouds of yellow-green pine and oak pollen are the most obtrusive sign that tree reproduction has begun, and will continue to coat cars, streets and everything outside. It is common for tree pollen season in Augusta to begin early February. If you have allergies, or live with someone who does, you recognize the signs: sneezing, sniffling, runny nose, congestion, itchy eyes, rubbing, snorting and all manner of annoying sounds and symptoms— my eyes start to itch just thinking about it!
Allergic rhinitis, or the medical term for hay fever, is the body’s immune response to something that really isn’t harmful. The immune system reacts to an allergen— in this case, tree pollen— and tries to clear it away with mucous production, sneezing and by releasing a cascade of immune factors to increase blood flow to the affected area. It causes all those symptoms listed above.
Now, as a pediatrician, I support children going outside for a myriad of reasons. Exercise is great for kids. Playing is great for kids. Fresh air is great for kids. Being in nature and getting dirty is great for kids. Understanding the great outdoors and celebrating God’s creation is GREAT for kids! Much of my time spent with patients in the office is trying to get them to unplug and be active outside. I believe childhood is a time to play, explore and work outside. I, for one, plan on continuing my childhood as long as I’m alive.
However, the outside pollen can make us miserable if we suffer from allergies. How do we mitigate the problem? While completely escaping pollen is unlikely, there are several common-sense things that reduce its effects. They boil down to limiting the allergen— particularly to sensitive areas like eyes, nose, and lungs— and keeping contact with those areas at a minimum.
• Keep windows closed in your home and car, especially when pollen counts are high. Set your AC to re-circulate in your car and home, and use high-quality pollen-type air filters in your HVAC. Be sure to change them regularly.
• Wash your hands! When in contact with anything that has pollen on it, wash residue off before touching your nose or eyes. This is particularly helpful after recess or playtime outside. Make it a habit to wash hands, dry them off with a paper towel, and then wipe the eyes and face with the moist towel. It’s also a reasonable thing to do for germ prevention since respiratory and allergy season overlap significantly, as do their symptoms.
• Eyeglasses help keep pollen from blowing into the eyes. Just as importantly, keep pollen-covered hands from rubbing the little irritants into the mucous membranes of the eye. (Sunglasses are a good addition to youth sports and spectating.)
• Change out of clothes that are covered in pollen.
• Bathing and washing hair before going to bed can limit exposure at night and help keep pollen off your bedding. Wash bedding in hot, soapy water once a week.
• In high-count times, a facemask can protect nasal passages and lungs.
• Pets, sports equipment, tools and other objects all carry pollen, so wiping them down is recommended.
• Consider pollen levels when planning outdoor activities. Tree pollens tend to be highest between 5 and 10 am, and on dry and windy days. Levels tend to be lowest after heavy rain.
• Avoid other irritants that flare up mucous membranes (cigarette smoke, harsh chemicals or cleaning agents, perfumes, etc.).
• Saline rinses of the nasal passages can clear out allergens and mucus.
• Medicines that treat or prevent allergy symptoms are helpful and effective, especially if used regularly and before exposure. The backbone of preventative allergy medical treatment is intranasal steroids and oral 2nd generation antihistamines which are both available without a prescription. Some other medications like good allergy eyedrops are advantageous. All medicines can have side effects, so check with your health care provider, particularly when dealing with children or people with multiple medical problems.
• Allergy immunotherapy, an excellent option for some patients, can really modify the disease course and improve quality of life.
• Patients who have asthma or tendencies toward wheezing need to be particularly watchful of allergic triggers if they also have allergic rhinitis, as anything that inflames the nose can inflame the lungs.
For many, springtime allergies are a temporary annoyance to be managed. So, take precautions, but do venture outside! If you happen to pass through my neighborhood, say “hello”. I’m the guy mowing the lawn or walking his dog while wearing sunglasses and a surgical mask. And yes, I premedicate, as well as wash my face as soon as I come in from outside.
This article appears in the March 2020 issue of Augusta Family Magazine. Did you like what you read here?