Health and Wellness from Humana - Summer Allergies

Dealing with summertime allergies

Summertime, and the living is sneezy (and itchy)

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.

Allergies, allergens, and allergic reactions

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.

Pollen, pollen everywhere

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:

  • Weeds like ragweed, cockleweed, pigweed, Russian thistle, sagebrush, and tumbleweed
  • Grasses like Bermuda grass, blue grasses, orchard grass, red top, sweet vernal, and Timothy

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.

Summer allergy symptoms

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:

  • Runny nose
  • Watery eyes
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Itchy eyes and nose
  • Dark circles under the eyes
The Cleveland Clinic says at least 1 in 6 Americans suffers from hay fever. That's about 50 million hay fever cases in this country alone!

And then there are the reactions to poison ivy, oak, sumac, and bug bites. Symptoms can include:

  • Itching
  • Swelling at the bite site

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 few allergy facts

Get to know your local pollen count

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.

Rainy days are beautiful days

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.

10 a.m. to 4 p.m. is pollen prime time

If you're allergic, late afternoon after 4 p.m. is probably a better time to enjoy outdoor activities.

Just because it's summer doesn't mean mold isn't around

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.

The beach is not an allergy-free zone

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!

Poison ivy, oak, and sumac are not contagious

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.

Wash inside the 30-minute rash window

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.

Living with summer allergies

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:

  • Wear natural fabrics like cotton.
  • Because it doesn't build up static, pollen doesn't stick to it as much as it does to other fabrics.

  • Wash your hair before bed.
  • If pollen gets in your hair during the day it won't get all over your pillow.

  • Close windows and outside doors and turn on the air-conditioning.
  • This helps on high-pollen days.

  • Use the "recirculate" vent setting in the car.
  • 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.

  • Change the filters in your furnace and air conditioner.
  • Follow the manufacturer's instructions. Change the filters more often if it seems to help.

  • Adjust your indoor humidity level.
  • 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.

  • Check the pollen count before you plan your day.
  • 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.

  • Manage your yard.
  • 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.

  • Dry your clothes in a clothes dryer, not on an outdoor line.
  • Just as it can stick to the clothes you're wearing, pollen can cling to bed linens and clothes hung out to dry.


Bugs, bugs, bugs

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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