It seems like no sooner does the sneezing and wheezing from one season end that the next one begins. And so it goes. The winter cold and flu season that ravaged the country was a doozy. Now, we are enjoying longer days, more sunshine and nature’s reproduction cycle at work. Which is to say, pollen season is upon us. Just look outside.

Cooler states started to see plants release pollen in February and March. Trees are also now producing allergens and by early summer, grasses will be kicking pollen into the air and into people’s airways.

According to the U.S Food & Drug Administration, nearly 36 million people suffer from seasonal allergies, the leading allergy being hay fever — or allergic rhinitis — the body’s reaction to pollen. Those little grains of often yellow (though sometimes blue, red, or purple) powder-like substance so critical to fertilization and the creation of new plants and fruits (apples, blueberries, kiwis and more), can also cause a lot of misery. Sneezing, nasal congestion, and itchy red eyes, nose and throat that linger are tell-tale signs of a pollen allergy and in some cases, it can trigger asthma and wheezing. How can a microscopic granule do all that? Let’s take a look.

How It Works

Formed inside the male part of a flower, the job of each pollen grain is to carry male plant DNA to the female part of a flower for fertilization. Pollinators, like insects, birds and bees are critical carriers, but it is the wind that turns pollen into an allergy-triggering machine.

Plants, and especially grasses, throw off literally billions of pollen particles into the air which inevitably settle into people’s noses and mouths. That’s where the battle begins.

Pollen isn’t looking to start a fight. It’s actually harmless. But our bodies see those particles as a threat and immediately summon antibodies, called histamines, to come to our defense. The result? An increase in blood flow and inflammation. The histamine signals your brain to sneeze to try and get rid of the pollen. Your membranes start to make more mucus leaving you with a runny or stuffy nose. The mucus also runs down your throat and makes you cough. Those histamines, which is just your immune system trying to protect you, can also cause your eyes and nose to itch.

How to Treat

Antihistamines. It’s no surprise the first line of treatment for most people is an antihistamine which reduces or blocks histamines and the symptoms they produce. These can be tablets, liquids, sprays or drops. They work best if they stay in your system.

Neti Pot. The warm salt water rinse can help clear your nasal passages of excess mucus and allergens like pollen.

Avoid outdoors between 5 a.m. and 10 a.m. This is when pollen counts are usually highest but even low-count pollen days can trigger allergies if the wind is blowing.

Take a nightly shower. During allergy season, washing the pollen out of your hair at night will keep it off your pillow and your airways.

Allergy shots. Check with your doctor to see if this treatment is right for you.

When to See a Doctor

If you have other chronic health conditions, see a physician to see what over-the-counter (OTC) medications may or may not be right for you. Also, if OTC medicines and other sensible measures are not providing you with relief it is time to see a doctor. Untreated seasonal allergies can lead to other problems like asthma, eczema, sinusitis, ear infections and migraine headaches.