It's the Season...to stand strong against allergens!
Just like the song (and the Bible verses that inspired it): For everything, there is a season. In this case, there is a perfect time in nature to send out pollen, make flowers, plants and fruit, send more rain, make mold, dry out the ground (make dust), and send colder temps to give it all a rest. If only our bodies reacted as well as our natural surroundings to the seasons!
According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (aafa.org), there are seven types of allergies, which are drug, food, insect, latex, mold, pet and pollen. We discussed allergies in the post “Oh (BLANK), It’s Allergy Season again!” and how you can combat allergens inside your home. In this post, I’ll go more in depth about the different allergy seasons for pollen, mold, insects and pets (the ones that can be tied to seasons) and why they seem to get worse every year.
According to this graph given in a video on Vox, ragweed pollen production is directly related to CO2 levels in the atmosphere. Why? Plants take in carbon dioxide like we breathe in oxygen, and they use it to grow and propagate. More CO2 = more pollen.
Then, there is another effect of more CO2 in the atmosphere: warmer temperatures. More warmer days extend the time that plants like ragweed have to send out pollen. The graph below shows that over the last 50 years, the US on average has gained about 10 days to the typical growing season. While this is good for farmers, it is not good for allergy sufferers.
So, we aren’t just imagining it: pollen does increase in intensity and duration, year over year!
Pollen affects some people because their bodies deem it to be an intruder and produce antibodies, which bind to specific kinds of white cells, called mast cells. Upon recognizing pollen, the mast cells break open, releasing histamines that cause inflammation and increased blood flow to fight the “infection”. Itchy, watery eyes and a runny nose and sneezing are all results of increased histamines in your system.
This is the body’s response to most allergens, including dust, mold, and pet dander, etc. First, we’ll look at the different plant allergens.
The morning weather report may not tell you which particular plant pollen is peaking when it broadcasts a “high pollen count”, and it’s usually not the pretty flowers we notice. For example, pollen season in Mississippi usually starts around the time azaleas are blooming (February to early March), but it’s not the azaleas that are the culprit!
To know what kind of invisible pollen grains are doing you wrong, go to Pollen.com. Zoom in on the national map, then select a blue pin near you. This will give you the pollen count, what plants are currently high, and even a 5-day forecast! For example, on this day in early March 2022 in Mississippi, we have a score of 10.2 due to juniper, ash and oak trees. At the time of writing this, I don’t even know what juniper and ash trees look like, but it’s likely they are causing my stuffy head and itchy eyes. Pollen.com even has an app that you can install to access this information quickly. Pollen counts are the average number of pollen grains in a cubic meter of air. They are certainly tied to the weather, because rainy days provide relief (rain knocks pollen out of the atmosphere), and sunny, breezy days are worse because the pollen is able to dry out and blow off the tree (sometimes in visible clouds!). This website has other tools and info that are super-helpful to those of us who want to know the why (?!). Because there are so many types of plants that produce pollen and different blooming seasons, different pollens peak at different times of the year. This map groups them into 3 main categories: Ragweed, Grass, and Tree. Ragweed is notorious because it is a small plant that is part of the daisy family, producing little green flowers that can produce up to 1 billion grains (!) of pollen per plant. Particularly, the reaction is known as hay fever! Peak ragweed season is August and September in the US. Grass may be constant throughout the growing season, and trees typically peak in the early to mid springtime.
Mold: Mold grows throughout the year, but it can definitely increase outdoors after periods of rain, warmer temperatures and increased humidity (late spring through early fall). Mold is a beneficial part of nature, because it helps to decompose plant material, creating rich soil and nutrients for plants. However, it propagates by sending out spores that cause our bodies to react in ways similar to, and sometimes worse than, pollen.
Our bodies detect mold spores as intruders, and send out histamines to fight them. The difference between these spores and pollen, however, is that some mold spores produce mycotoxins, which are toxic chemicals. Therefore, depending on your sensitivity and the type of mold, breathing in mold spores can cause “just” typical allergy symptoms, or a more serious illness that mimics flu or viral infections. Check out our post on mycotoxins and how to avoid them.
Leaf molds are a typical source of mold allergy, which can be particularly high in the fall season. Leaves fall from trees and rains saturate the ground, creating the perfect environment for mold. According to Dr. Dean Mitchell of the Mitchell Medical Group in NY, “Usually, once the ground frosts over, mold dies off and the symptoms subside.”
Indoor mold can definitely be higher during the warmer, humid summer months too. When the humidity climbs outdoors, it does the same indoors, and this is when you’ll want to check your humidity sensor often to make sure your home stays below 60%. Stay vigilant that rooms like bathrooms, basements and laundry rooms are free of standing water (like water in the shower) and soft materials that can allow molds to take root easily. During the winter, be sure to clean any humidifiers regularly, so that mold doesn’t grow in them. Check out our Indoor Moisture Inventory to help keep moisture down in all areas of the house!
Insects: According to the AAFA, “Bees, wasps, hornets, yellow jackets and fire ants are the most common stinging insects that cause an allergic reaction. Non-stinging insects can also cause allergic reactions. The most common are cockroaches and the insect-like dust mite. Allergies to these two insects may be the most common cause of year-round allergy and asthma.”
Stinging and biting insects certainly have seasons: summer to early fall. This is when they are building nests, foraging for food, and generally annoying the heck out of those of us who enjoy the outdoors! They can even be more aggressive in the late summer and early fall, because the colonies have grown and they know to prepare: winter is coming. Surprisingly, wasps and yellowjackets are carnivores! They are not looking to eat us, but will go after smaller insects and any dead, rotting flesh (think: barbeque left-overs in the grill). The way we opt to control stinging and biting insects (besides swatting them) is very important to our families’ health, so it’s best to check out our post on outdoor pesticides (Enjoying the Outdoors Naturally: Making your backyard a NO FLY zone).
Dust mites are the new “no-see-um”. Unlike bed bugs, which are visible and leave visible bites and droppings, dust mites operate invisibly because of their size. At one-quarter to one-third of a millimeter, they are just too small to see with the naked eye. What’s more, they are related to spiders (cringe). That’s all I need to know: millions of tiny spiders in my bed, year-round! Check out our post on Bedding for Better Sleep to find out how to keep the dust mites and their allergic reactions to a minimum.
There are two overlapping allergens common to Insects and Pets, which are fleas and ticks. Having owned many dogs and a few cats, I know that fleas tend to “bloom” in numbers after it rains, and according to this site, are a problem in the fall months especially because animals will get their thicker coats and moisture outside still allows the fleas to live on the ground. Flea bites are super-irritating to animals and their humans, even causing death if the animal is depleted of too much blood. Ticks are also very dangerous because of the diseases they can carry: Lymes’ Disease can affect animals and humans in debilitating ways. Check out our post on “Enjoying the Outdoors Naturally: Making your backyard a NO FLY zone” to learn what products and strategies can keep you and your pets healthy outdoors.
Pets: Lots of pets love to be outside, and they tend to bring the allergens from outside, inside! For example, even dogs that don’t shed fur like Labradoodles and Yorkshire Terriers love to run around outside and roll in the grass, gathering allergens like pollen and mold in their fur, which they will promptly bring inside and shake into the air or roll on the bed! It’s our job as wise humans to mitigate the allergens they bring in, as well as the ones that they create all year long (dander, saliva, urine and feces). In our post “How to Improve Indoor Air Quality with Pets” I discussed what causes pet allergies, and the tips and products that can make a difference in our quality of life together. Dander can definitely be worse during the wintertime, when pets and humans stay inside more, and the drier climate can exacerbate dry, flaky skin. Minute particles of dead skin can float in the air and also provide food for more dust mites! I also recommend reading our FAQ on What is HEPA, and the post on HVAC filter changes.
All in all, it seems there is not a season free from allergens. The traditional route of medicine is to medicate, medicate, medicate…but we can do a lot to protect ourselves from the allergens through education and prevention (hence the other posts I mentioned). For those who continue to suffer from allergies after preventative steps, you may consider:
Saline sinus rinses with a drop of either TeaTree oil or Oregano Oil really help remove the pollen from your sinuses and disinfect against any mold or fungus that has lodged there. This page has information on which essential oils have antimicrobial properties and how to use them. I have successfully used 1 drop of teatree oil in 1 cup of warm saline water, used in a neti pot, to combat severe allergies this year (2022)!
Sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT) can help your body alter its immune response. This type of therapy is safe, doesn’t require painful shots, and with it many holistic doctors have enabled their patients to greatly reduce their allergies.