Education Articles

Airborne Allergies

Wild grass with water in the background
An allergy can be described as an abnormal physical reaction to a typically benign substance. Normally, your immune system protects your body against invading organisms that can make you ill, such as bacteria and viruses. During an allergic reaction, however, the immune system mistakenly identifies an ordinarily harmless substance as an invader. It starts an attack by producing large amounts of a protein called an antibody. With each subsequent exposure to the allergen, the antibody signals your body to release certain powerful chemicals (such as histamine) to attack the allergen. These chemicals can move to various parts of your body, causing allergic symptoms.

Millions of patients suffer from some type of allergy, but everyone is affected in a different way. Respiratory allergies are triggered when an airborne allergen reaches the mucous membrane that lines the inside of the nose. Symptoms of allergy can cover a broad spectrum, causing patients to complain of anything from itching of the eyes, nose, throat and ears; runny nose; watery eyes; sneezing; nasal congestion; cough; post nasal drip; dark circles under the eyes (“allergic shiners”); ear problems; headaches; hives; rashes; fatigue; general malaise and digestive upset, to allergic shock ( known as anaphylaxis). If you have asthma, inhaling substances you are allergic to can trigger an attack.

In rare cases, some allergens may cause a severe allergic reaction within minutes of an exposure. The person may experience a sudden, dangerous drop in blood pressure and the body can go into shock. Symptoms of this type of allergic reaction include feeling faint; rapid pulse; difficulty breathing; nausea and vomiting; stomach pain; hives; swelling of the lips, tongue or throat; and drowsiness, confusion, or loss of consciousness. Without immediate emergency attention, a severe allergic reaction may be life threatening.

In nature, airborne sources of allergens originate with pollens and mold spores. Pollen grains, which are small and light enough and produced in large quantities, are carried on air currents for hundreds of miles. It is these wind-pollinated plants that are the cause of suffering for millions of people. Mold spores are released under certain conditions into the wind currents and on rain droplets or just by touching the mold, depending on the type of mold and its substrate, or where it grows.

Tree, Grass, & Weed Pollens

Tree, grass and weed pollens are typically regional and seasonal, varying with the weather and moisture conditions and length of growing season. Pollen is part of the reproductive cycle in flowering plants and is dispersed by wind or carried by insects. Insect-pollinated flowers usually have large, showy, and bright colored petals, which attract insects. Insects carry the larger, stickier pollen grain on their bodies to facilitate fertilization of plants. In wind-pollinated plants, the flowers are very small and inconspicuous, producing enormous quantities of lightweight dry pollen that is readily dispersed by the atmosphere. The largest quantity of pollen will be released on a warm, dry, sunny and windy day. Cold temperature and high humidity delay pollen release, and rainfall washes the air of pollen.

In the northeast, typical tree pollination occurs between February to June, starting with American Elm and Alder species and ending the season with the later pollinators such as walnuts and some of the pines. The yellow film you see on your car windshield is an accumulation of tree pollen. Pollen is released in such large quantities in a short period of time that it coats everything.

As the tree season wanes, grass pollination picks up. This can be a major problem from May through mid-July for allergy sufferers who are grass allergic. It does not take large amounts of grass pollen to make the allergic patient miserable due to the highly potent nature of grass pollen. Frequent grass-mowing kicks up large amounts of pollen. Hay cuttings are largely responsible for dispersing significant quantities of pollen to be carried on wind currents for many miles.

Ragweed

Just at the time that Central New York is starting to enjoy the local harvest, and preparations are being finalized for the New York State Fair, Ragweed pollen makes itself known to ragweed sufferers. Ragweed blooms from August through October, peaking in September and terminating with killing frost. Ragweed’s scientific name, Ambrosia, indicated something pleasant, but the informed allergy sufferer knows otherwise. Ragweed is one of the most potent allergenic plants in North America and also one of the most prolific. Ragweed plants produce billions of pollen grains, which are easily born on wind currents. Though the ragweed plant is rather non-descript, its tiny florets are efficient pollen producers and dispersers. Heavy rainfall in the spring and hot, dry weather during the growing season are ideal conditions for ragweed plants. Watch the roadsides as you travel and identify the healthy fern-like plants lining the shoulders and ditches as ragweed. Keep your car windows closed . . . Ambrosia indeed.

Mold or Fungi

Mold or fungi prefer to grow in moist, warm areas, indoors and out. Winds can carry active mold spores from warmer climates into our region, but become dormant in cold air. Mold can survive the cold by finding a spot deep in decomposing plant and animal matter, using it as a nutrient to maintain its own life. During summer months, the amount of mold spores can usually be found in decaying plant material like fallen leaves, clipped grass, and mulches. Alternaria is one of the molds associated with sporulation with lawn mowing. It grows on old grass clippings left on the lawn and spores are released with the disturbance of a subsequent mowing. Mold can grow indoors in bathrooms, kitchens, and damp basements.

Dust Mites

The dust mite is an indoor allergen which hides in the dust that can be found even in the cleanest home. Though not visible to the naked eye, having only a microscopic presence in our lives visually, its allergic impact is felt by all whom are sensitive to it. The dust mite’s favorite place is in areas where the source of its food, shed human skin cells, is in the greatest supply. This includes all bedding, stuffed furniture, carpets and clothing.

Pets

Pets with fur offer yet another allergen in the home. Cats and dogs most commonly cohabitate with us and are wonderful for our emotional health with their undying devotion and companionship. They do shed unwanted fur and with it dander that we can become sensitized to.

Go to next article: Living With It All

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