The ripening of pollen-filled plants like ragweed means fall allergy season has arrived in western Pennsylvania.
“If you have a stuffy nose, sneezing, and itchy eyes, ears, and roof of your mouth, that’s usually a seasonal allergy,” says Dr. Karen Lang, who practices family medicine with Excela Health in Greensburg.
“When you have a fever, aches and yellow-green drainage from your nose, you probably have more than one illness,” he said.
The Mayo Clinic notes some additional differences in symptoms: A sore throat is uncommon with an allergy, but is usually associated with covid-19; Nausea and diarrhea are other potential covid symptoms that are not part of an allergic response.
Another clue that an allergy might be the cause of one’s misery is an annual trend. “Sometimes it’s very obvious, if you have symptoms every fall or spring,” Lang noted. Tree pollen is a major allergen in the spring, while ragweed takes over as the main culprit in the fall.
Ragweed blooms and releases pollen from August to November, with pollen levels in many parts of the country peaking in mid-September, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
In many areas of the country, ragweed pollen levels are highest in early to mid-September.
Pollen.com offers an online tool that can be used to get a forecast of upcoming pollen levels in major US cities. It says pollen levels are expected to be in the low-medium range Wednesday in Pittsburgh, with a pollen count of 4.6.
A pollen count measures the grams of pollen present per cubic meter in a 24-hour period. A high pollen count is 9.7 to 12.
“Most fall allergy sufferers blame goldenrod, which is such a beneficial plant for fall pollinators,” said Patti Schildkamp, a master gardener at Westmoreland County-based Penn State. “It’s actually the ambrosia that blooms next to it that’s to blame.”
The two plants have some similarities in appearance, but goldenrod flowers turn a bright yellow while common ragweed flowers are a softer green.
Ragweed pollen is light and can be carried on the wind for miles. It is estimated that one plant can produce up to 1 billion grains of pollen, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Release of pollen peaks between 5 and 10 am
Goldenrod pollen is larger and heavier and sticks to pollinators that visit the plant.
Another potential allergy effect is oral allergy syndrome or cross-reactivity. An allergic person may experience itching or tingling in the mouth when eating melons, watermelon, bananas or sunflower seeds because these foods have proteins that share similarities with ragweed pollen, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
Sandra Mason, master gardener coordinator at the University of Illinois, offers advice to homeowners who find ragweed sprouting in their lawn or garden: “Cut, cultivate or pull ragweed so it doesn’t ‘go to seed’ to help reduce its population . Next season, wet the area and remove the plants in May or June before flowering.”
Other plants that can trigger allergies in the fall include burning bush, kelp, and mugwort.
To limit exposure to pollen from these plants, Lang said, “The smartest approach is to keep the air conditioner on and the windows closed.
“If you’re going to work outdoors, wear a mask. That can really reduce symptoms. With all the mask-wearing we’ve done during the pandemic, more people are probably comfortable wearing a mask”.
Lang noted that the body’s production of the chemical histamine is what causes allergy symptoms, so the first line of treatment to relieve them would be an over-the-counter antihistamine. The original forms of these drugs can make people drowsy, but the newer versions avoid that side effect, Lang said.
Nasal steroid sprays can also be helpful and are available over the counter, he said.
Beyond that, doctors can offer allergy shots based on the specific allergens that affect a patient.
A skin prick test is a common method of identifying the cause of a person’s allergy. A suspected allergen is applied to the pricked area to see if there is a reaction, Lang explained. Blood tests may also be done.
Testing can help identify allergens that can affect people year-round, such as mold, dust mites, pet dander, and cockroach droppings.
A serum containing the identified allergen is given to the patient in increasingly large doses.
“So when you’re exposed to the environment, you’ve already developed a tolerance to it,” Lang said.