July 21, 2011
We're not the only ones who like the warm days of summer. It's a busy time for nature, too. Plants and trees are growing and seeding. Bees are on the hunt to make honey and other biting insects, like mosquitoes, fleas and ticks, are on the hunt for well, us.
So here's a little bit on allergies, what causes them, and how to weather a summer full of allergy-causing activity.
The Cleveland Clinic calls an allergy "the body's inappropriate and exaggerated response to a foreign substance." Basically, this means your immune system thinks a simple thing like pollen is more dangerous than it actually is. It then reacts in a big way, releasing "antibodies" to fight off the invader. There's more to it, but this is the basic idea behind what's called an "allergic reaction." When your body is attacked by bacteria or a virus, antibodies are very useful. But when your body uses antibodies to fight off a mild allergen, it's like opening a fire hydrant to put out a burning match.
Things that cause allergic reactions are called "allergens." Pollen, mold, animal dander and dust mites are good examples. But some medicines, foods, and latex can cause allergic reactions, too.
Allergies usually run in families. If a parent has allergies or asthma, his or her children have about a 25% greater risk for them, too. If both parents have allergies, the risk can double.
NOTE: Some allergic reactions to things like spider and tick bites, bee stings, and some foods can be life-threatening. The immune system puts out so many chemicals that the body goes into shock and shuts down. If you feel weak, faint, have cold chills or other symptoms after a bite, sting or other allergen, get medical help right away.
If our bodies release antibodies to fight off allergens, we are "allergic" to these things. What we are allergic to depends on the "triggers" that kick off an allergic reaction.
Allergens in the air can also trigger asthma. This is a condition where the airways narrow, causing coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath.
One of the biggest summer triggers for allergies is pollen.
What is pollen? It's the main cause of summer allergies. Pollen comes from plants. Basically, it's what plants use to make more plants. Pollens from weeds and grasses start in the spring and keep going all summer long.
This short video from the American Academy of Allergies, Asthma and Immunology explains why pollen gives us so much trouble:
Pollen is carried by the wind, so on a still day pollen levels are usually lower. A windy day will have higher levels as the pollens blow around. Chilly, rainy days are often good "low-pollen" days.
Some common pollen sources:
Another big cause of summer allergy problems is air pollution, especially ozone. Ozone is worst on hot, sunny, and windless days. If pollution gives you trouble, try to stay indoors.
The medical name for it is "allergic rhinitis," but most people know it as hay fever. Hay fever is caused by pollen, and its symptoms include:
And then there are the reactions to poison ivy, oak, sumac, and bug bites. Symptoms can include:
Really strong reactions like nausea, fever, shortness of breath, extreme soreness at the rash site, or swollen lymph nodes need emergency care right away.
A pollen count measures the number of grains of pollen in the air over a certain period of time. Check the daily pollen count in your area. The National Allergy Bureau, and American Academy of Allergy Asthma Immunology provides daily pollen information.
Pollen counts are usually at their lowest on chilly, soggy days. Right after a heavy rain is the best low-pollen time of all. But if you're allergic to mildew or mold, you might have something else to deal with.
If you're allergic, late afternoon after 4 p.m. is probably a better time to enjoy outdoor activities.
Mold grows on soil, decaying leaves, and rotting wood. Most outdoor molds aren't active during the winter, but when spring comes around, they start growing. That's why we're most likely to have allergic reactions to mold in the summer.
You know that pretty grass in the sand dunes? It comes from somewhere, and that somewhere means pollen's part of the story. In fact, ragweed pollen has been found 400 miles out at sea. Like we said above, it really is everywhere!
However, the oil from these plants can stay on clothes, tools, shoes, and pet fur for a long time. If you're going hiking or doing yard work near one of these plants, take care to wash everything that comes in contact with it very well. Use bleach-and-water or rubbing alcohol to get the oil off garden tools.
If poison ivy, oak, or sumac oil might be on your skin, wash very well with soap and water. Don't forget to scrub under your fingernails! If you can wash within 30 minutes of touching the plant you are less likely to break out in a rash.Learn more about poison ivy, oak, and sumac
And for help spotting poison ivy, oak, and sumac as well as dealing with it, WebMD offers a very good slide show.
Knowing and avoiding things you're allergic to is the best way to get through the summer. Here are a few tips from WebMD for surviving summer pollen season:
Because it doesn't build up static, pollen doesn't stick to it as much as it does to other fabrics.
If pollen gets in your hair during the day it won't get all over your pillow.
This helps on high-pollen days.
Pollen comes in through open windows, sunroofs, and vents. Protect yourself by closing them. Set your vent control to "recirculate" and use your car's air conditioning.
Follow the manufacturer's instructions. Change the filters more often if it seems to help.
Humidity of less than 50% helps control mold and its spores. Use a digital thermometer that shows the humidity level. A dehumidifier can help you get the level below 50%. Put the dehumidifier on the main living level of your house.
Visit American Academy of Allergy Asthma Immunology and click on the map. You can even sign up to have your daily local pollen count e-mailed to you. If the pollen count looks like it's going to be high, wait to run errands or exercise until after 4 p.m. when pollen counts are usually lower. Don't forget your allergy medicine, and wear sunglasses to help keep pollen out of your eyes.
Know which tree, grass, and weed pollens set off your allergic reactions. Try to remove them and use other plants that don't cause problems for you. But remember, airborne pollens can travel hundreds of miles. And, since cutting the grass stirs up pollens, it's a good idea to ask or hire someone else to mow the lawn. Also, avoid freshly cut grass.
Just as it can stick to the clothes you're wearing, pollen can cling to bed linens and clothes hung out to dry.
And let's not forget our "friends": mosquitoes, spiders, wasps, hornets, yellow jackets, bees, fleas, mites, and chiggers. We could go on and on here, but it's probably best to let you see for yourself:
Summer's a busy time. And not just for us humans. But the more you know about the itch-and-sneeze allergens of summer, the more you can enjoy living in it. Be safe, and have fun!
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