The What, Why and Hows about Pollen Allergies


It is finally spring time. Tulip season, flowers and greenery. These are the images that usually come to people’s minds when they talk about the season, but do not forget the one downside. Runny noses, congestion and watery eyes. Pollen allergies. Almost 100 million people in the U.S. suffer from pollen allergies, and you could be included. I, for one, can attest to dealing with allergies ever since I was a child. I would come indoors during spring time sneezing all over the place. I would need an inhaler sometimes too. Though the symptoms have gotten a bit better with age, sometimes I can not even step outside without a mask without my eyes watering and congestion knocking me out for the day.


I realize that most of us suffer from these symptoms, but I have recently been asking the question why? Is it genetic? What happens when we ingest pollen? What factors contribute to our symptoms? All these questions bombarded me, and I knew I had to do some research. The answers I have found listed below might clear some doubts that you were unaware of.


What happens when an allergen gets in contact with your system?


To start off, when the body gets in contact with allergens, such as pollen, the immune system starts producing an excessive amount of antibodies. The large influx of antibodies triggers symptoms like sneezing, watery eyes and congestion that we experience in our day-to-day life. To get more specific, the immune system produces a specific antibody called immunoglobulin. The takeaway here is that these molecules have a high specificity. So, for example, you could be allergic to one specific type of pollen but not another. Your body makes a different immunoglobulin for different types of pollen, such as grass, ragweed or tree. Whether or not you react depends on whether your body responds to an allergen. 


What are allergic reactions? How are they different?


It might be a surprise that an allergic reaction usually occurs when someone gets exposed to an allergen a second time. Essentially, the first exposure causes an influx of antibodies, and the second exposure really exacerbates the previous flood of antibodies causing the sneezing, swelling and rashes we experience during spring.


How do we get allergies in the first place? Why does someone react to pollen while others do not?


 Even with the research that we have today, there is no straight answer. According to John Hopkins University, allergies can affect anyone, regardless of age, race, gender and socioeconomic status. They mention that allergies can come up randomly and that many factors such as environmental exposure, stress and hormones can increase a person’s likelihood of developing allergies. Furthermore, John Hopkins states that some allergies can be hereditary. People are more likely to be diagnosed with allergies if family members have them. Also, children are more susceptible to certain allergens since their immune systems are still developing. 


Overall, the cause of allergies is still a mystery. It might depend on genetics or chronic exposure to certain irritants. But, in the end, it seems like there is not much to do to avoid the urge to sneeze completely.


What are some basic preventative measures?


Listed below are preventative measures and treatment options that are very accessible to university students below


First, start taking allergy medications before spring starts. This can consist of Cromolyn sodium, nasal corticosteroids (Nasacort), antihistamines (Claritin), decongestants (Afrin) and leukotriene receptor antagonists (Singulair). Ask your doctor about which ones to take since they all have different functions. There are also long-term immunotherapies that function similarly to vaccines. In a nutshell, immunotherapies expose your body to increasing amounts of allergen over time to build resistance.


Second, keep your windows closed, limit outdoor activity and wear glasses and/or masks to limit exposure to pollen.


Third, take a shower before going to bed. This limits having pollen left over on the bed. Also, washing your sheets every week helps a lot.


Pollen allergies are annoying, and I can say that I can live my life without them. Since most of what causes allergies are unknown, most of us are just stuck with it. It is a challenge but I think it just requires due diligence. The best thing we can do is get involved with prevention. Wear a mask. Wear glasses to protect your eyes. Take Claritin. These small actions can definitely save you from a day full of discomfort, a day full of sneezing and congestion.