Everything You Need to Know About Tree and Spring Pollen Allergies
Compared to the rest of the U.S., midwinter and early spring in Jacksonville is a really beautiful time of year.
Although, our mild temperatures tend to attract folks from more frigid regions, that doesn’t mean our “cool” seasons are completely free of any downsides. In fact, if you’re allergic to tree pollen — one of the most common allergens we have here on the First Coast — you know this all too well.
Another downside? Jacksonville was in the Top 50 Worst Cities for Spring Allergies in 2016 (although, on the bright side — that is an improvement from the previous listing where we were in the top 30).
Across most of the country, trees don’t release their pollen until early spring. But, thanks to our temperate climate here in North Florida, local trees produce an abundance of pollen starting in late December!
If you suffer from tree pollen sensitivity, here’s a helpful guide for tree pollen allergies and our best advice for controlling a reaction this spring season.
First: What is Tree Pollen?
That super-fine yellow dust you find on your car in the morning or the layer of yellow dust on outdoor surfaces is tree pollen—pine pollen to be exact.
Pollen carries a plant’s DNA from the stamen to the pistil (generally considered the “female” part of a plant). This process is called pollination and it’s what allows plants to reproduce.
What Trees Cause the Most Allergy Issues in Florida?
Tree pollen is a well-known, highly allergenic substance. Allergic trees native to Northeast Florida include:
River Birch are common in Northeast Florida. People with birch pollen allergies will be at their worst when the trees bloom, typically in late winter and early spring. However, birch pollen allergies are a bit different for sufferers — researchers have found that some produce can trigger allergic reactions in people susceptible to birch tree pollen allergies — this is oral allergy syndrome.
Bayberry pollen can be easily spread when wind picks up in the spring. It’s a common Florida allergen, and many people are sensitive to the pollen as well as the scent. Bayberry is
Large, towering elms can be a beautiful sight, but for allergy sufferers elms can create a significant problem starting in late January though the spring months. Elms are wind pollinated trees and the pollen is easily carried by springtime winds.
Oak trees, especially Bluejack Oaks are a severe allergen for Floridians. These trees are common throughout residential areas and parks — so the pollen potential is very high. Oaks cause real seasonal suffering for people with oak pollen allergies because the trees have a long period of pollen production.
Red maples are one of the most abundant and widespread trees in North America. Maples are a moderate allergen and they are also one of the first trees to begin pollinating in the Winter and Spring seasons.
Although pine tree allergies are fairly uncommon, they do present issues for sufferers. Pines can be produce large amounts of pollen, often leaving layers of pollen on surfaces and spreading easily through the air. Pollen is usually worse in the early mornings, and can sometimes be mitigated by our moist, humid air.
Misconceptions About Tree Pollen Allergies
Most people assume that trees with large or fragrant flowers must be the cause most allergy problems, but actually the opposite is true. Trees with showy flowers have larger, “stickier” pollen that quickly falls to the ground. As a result, flowering trees depend on insects (not the wind) to carry their pollen. Since these pollen aren’t blowing in the wind, you’re less likely to inhale them and develop allergies to them.
Another common misconception (which can be applied to all types of allergies) is that you cannot develop seasonal allergies as an adult if you didn’t have them as a child. Allergic reactions can come on rapidly and appear even in adulthood. It is also common when people move to new regions and are exposed to allergens they may not have been exposed to where they previously lived.
Also, people believe that there is little to no pollen near the beach — but pollen can be airborne and carried for hundreds of miles well into our beach areas. While our beaches do have lower pollen counts, they also have wild grasses and plants that can increase allergic reactions.
What Triggers Make Tree Allergy Reactions Worse?
Sometimes a perfect storm of factors can trigger allergic reactions.
Here are some common triggers that can make already bad tree pollen allergies even worse:
- Mild, breezy days with cool evenings. When the wind picks up pollen and disperses it through the air, you don’t need to have trees in your vicinity to suffer. With occasional exceptions, this pretty much sums up the weather in Jacksonville during the second half of December through March.
- Thunderstorms. While rainy days bring relief for allergy sufferers, thunderstorms can actually make matters worse for you. Pollen grains can be carried by the winds produced in thunderstorms and easily rupture—leading to increased allergic reaction during storms and a phenomenon called “thunderstorm asthma.” If the forecast calls for thunderstorms, stay indoors as much as possible since the rapidly changing weather preceding storms seems to increase pollen load in the air.
- Some types of fruits or vegetables. You read that correctly! People who suffer nasal allergies from specific tree pollens also have a higher risk of reaction to certain raw fruits and vegetables. If, for example, you have a birch pollen allergy and eat raw apple or pear, you may experience a localized allergic reaction with mild swelling and itchiness inside your mouth. This is called the pollen-food allergy syndrome (formerly known as the oral allergy syndrome) and occurs when the immune system in your mouth mistakes certain raw fruit and vegetable proteins for pollens that you are allergic to. One way to fight this is to simply peel your raw fruits or vegetables and cook them (at least the ones that can be cooked) which will lessen or help you completely avoid a reaction.
- Proximity to the trigger trees. If you have one of the culprit trees in your yard, you are, of course, more susceptible to allergy symptoms and reactions. But you may be surprised at just how much more susceptible you are: Trigger trees in your yard could expose you to more than 10 times the amount of pollen as a tree down the block.
Tree Pollen Allergy Symptoms
A sensitivity to pollen causes your body to produce an abundance of allergic antibodies called IgE. IgE allows your immune system to launch a full scale allergic response when it sees a culprit tree pollen. These reactions result in a flood of histamines in your eyes and respiratory tract and can lead to following allergy symptoms:
- Itchy and tearing/watery red eyes. Your eyes may be inflamed, itchy and red. There might also be “crust” (dried eye mucus) along your eyelids, most commonly experienced upon waking in the morning.
- Bags under the eyes. You might also notice dark circles and bags under your eyes. These are sometimes called allergic shiners and are due to congested blood vessels associated with nasal inflammation.
- Runny nose. People with tree pollen allergies experience nasal congestion and a runny nose at the same time. A runny nose might also result in post-nasal drip. Children can develop a semi-permanent crease along their noses from constantly rubbing the tips of their runny noses upward—a maneuver affectionately termed the allergic salute!
- Sneezing and congestion. You may sneeze frequently, have an itchy nose, and feel pressure in your nose and sinuses.
- Coughing fits or sore throats. Allergies to tree pollen may also cause you to experience a scratchy, sore throat. The discomfort can be due to inflammation, post-nasal drip or both. Depending on how much you’re coughing, you could also develop laryngitis and hoarseness.
Airborne pollen can also trigger asthma, making breathing difficult and leading to coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath.
While these symptoms may seem mild at first, over time they can cause progressive impairment of quality of life, work and sleep. More severe reactions may occur in people with asthma and other respiratory problems.
In addition to the above symptoms, some of our patients report feeling as if they have the flu for months and just feel physically drained. Pollen allergies are also described like a bad cold that just won’t go away.
Tips for Avoiding or Limiting Tree Allergies
Since we have a good idea of when the tree pollen allergy season will begin each year, it’s easy to start taking precautions early. Some of the precautions are common-sense and, depending on your situation, some may be more realistic than others.
- Avoid contact with tree pollen as much as possible. It’s best to avoid coming into physical contact with pollen as much as you can. Limit your time outdoors on high pollen days; keep windows in cars closed at all times during tree pollen season; and consider wearing gloves or a mask if pollen counts are very high and you must be outside.
- Remove trigger trees. If possible, remove any trigger trees that are in your yard. If removing the tree is not an option, get it trimmed back as much as allowable to reduce the amount of pollen it produces.
- Keep windows and doors shut. On these beautiful days it’s tempting to open up the windows and doors for some fresh air—but high pollen counts and windy days will bring pollen inside to get trapped in carpets and furniture.
- Do not dry clothes outdoors. Although it can be a money saver, do not hang laundry outside to dry—they will certainly collect pollen.
- Avoid early morning outdoor exercise. Trees tend to pollinate in the early AM. If you must exercise early, try to do so in a gym or some other indoor setting. Outdoor exercise should be left to later in the day when pollen has had a chance to settle.
- Always check the pollen forecasts. Be aware of what the coming days will bring. Like our Facebook page for allergy forecasts or visit www.pollen.com or weather.com for other allergy reports around Florida.
- Shower in the evening. Showering before bed will remove pollen from your hair and will help avoid spreading it all over your pillow and bedspreads.
- Vacuum often. Vacuum your house at least twice per week to remove pollen and dust that have become trapped in your carpets. Consider wearing a mask when vacuuming, as your machine can kick up dust and pollen articles into the air when vacuuming and emptying it’s contents.
- Clean out and replace filters as recommended. Many air conditioning units are equipped with whole house filters to trap dust and air particles. Clean and replace filters as recommended by your air conditioning unit and manufacturer’s recommendations.
Allergy Testing and Treatment
The good news is that you don’t have to suffer through tree pollen season. Be sure to contact an allergy and asthma specialist for a formal allergy evaluation, preferably before the season begins or very early in the season. You may already know that you have a seasonal allergy, but do not know just which pollen(s) you are allergic to. Allergists can determine the specific pollens that are causing your problems and can tell you when that pollen is expected to be in the air.
Your allergist will take a detailed history of any reactions you’ve had, then if indicated, he or she can test for allergies to identify the culprit allergen and determine the best course of treatment.
The most common method of testing for pollen allergies is a simple skin prick test. At our office, we use a very fine stylet that is lightly pressed against the skin. The stylet introduces individual pollens and other allergens to the immune system in your skin. If you’re allergic or sensitive to a particular allergen, a small pink raised bump will appear within minutes where the skin prick test was placed.
For some people, a blood test may be the best option to determine your allergic sensitivity. A small amount of your blood is taken and tested to check for antibodies that respond to specific allergens. Depending on your allergy test results, we can offer guidance about the best and most direct course of action for your symptoms.
Treatment options for tree pollen allergies can range from avoidance, to physician-recommended over-the-counter or prescription medicines to allergy shots (also known as allergen immunotherapy) for more severe reactions. Your allergist will work with you to determine what is best for your needs and your lifestyle.
What do you do if you’re caught off guard without allergy medicine?
Here’s a great, quick remedy treatment you can use in case you find yourself in a situation where you can’t take medication or avoid your triggers.
First, check the pollen forecast. Then use nasal saline rinse or irrigation several times throughout the day during the worst of the tree pollen season. The saline irrigation removes pollen particles from the surface of your nasal passages, clears thick or crusted nasal drainage and soothes irritated nasal membranes.
There are a number of studies that found that patients with allergic rhinitis or chronic sinusitis who use regular saline rinses have less bacterial load and require fewer antibiotics. Using a rinse may also reduce your need for medication to control allergies.
You can buy saline rinse or irrigation kits at any drugstore and many grocery stores. These kits usually use a squeeze bottle or gravity to direct saline through the nasal passages. A common squeeze bottle technique is to position your head downward and rotated slightly to the left (do this over a sink). Gently squeeze some of the solution into your right nostril; the solution will come out through your left nostril. Now repeat on the other side.
Ready or not, tree pollen season is here! If you haven’t already prepared and expect you’ll need help this season, be sure to contact us today to schedule an appointment. This is a gorgeous time of year that should not be missed by staying indoors. Don’t suffer, we’re here to help.