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Why do you sneeze at the trees?

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In spring, one of the most uncelebrated hot topics is pollen. You only need to turn on the TV and you will be inundated with commercials for allergy products. But why do people sneeze at the trees? It is quite an intricate process the body orchestrates to “protect” itself from what it perceives as a foreign invader.

Most people have immune systems that know the difference between the safe guys and the dangerous ones. They recognize that substances such as pollen will not hurt them, they handle them without effort, and the person is none the worse for it.

People who suffer from allergies have immune systems that think these normally innocuous substances are threats. When confronted with things like pollen, dust and animal dander, they initiate what is called an allergic cascade to attack the “menace.” Immune cells and chemical messengers in your body team up to cause the immediate release of the chemical histamine, and later, leukotrienes and prostaglandins, which increase the inflammation already occurring from the histamine release.

The results of these interactions can range from minor — such as itchy, watery eyes or a stuffy nose — all the way up to anaphylaxis, a severe reaction that can lead to death if not treated immediately. The good news for seasonal allergy sufferers is that anaphylaxis is more common with food and medication allergies or insect stings than with pollens.

When those lovely cherry trees start blooming in spring your response may be: “Oh, how pretty” or “Oh, no!” depending on what your body does with pollen. Contrary to what some believe, it isn’t the flowering trees that cause the symptoms, but they herald the budding of others that are less friendly to some. All plants have pollen, but how that pollen is transported determines whether it will affect the allergy sufferer or not. Smaller, finer pollen, such as that on birch, elm, oak and a host of other trees is light and carried through the air.

The flowering trees produce heavier pollen particles that drop to the ground faster than they can be carried by the wind. That’s the yellow plague that appears on everything you own that you leave outside, and even inside if you keep your windows open.

Many flowers do not cause allergies. Insects like bees gather and transport much of the pollen from flower to flower before the wind catches it, and just as the trees that were mentioned above, some flowers have pollen that is larger and heavier, so it falls more easily to the ground.

If you are planning a wedding and you are aware that someone might have trouble with pollen, you can find websites that will tell you which flowers are OK to use and which should be avoided.

Different seasons bring different prominent pollen. In the spring, tree pollen is the worst. Starting in May, grass is at work. The fall brings weeds, particularly ragweed. The worst time for pollen is when the trees and plants first begin to bloom, which is why some are worse and some better at any given time.

When I was an allergy nurse, I would advise my patients to start taking their antihistamines before the pollen was expected to make its seasonal debut. Doing this may reduce initial symptoms if the onset of the season catches you off-guard, and it may prepare your body for war sooner.

This is but a drop in the bucket of the complicated topic of allergy and immunology. Resources abound, though, so now that you know the basics, browse around and learn what you can do to minimize the effects of allergies. Good resources are The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology at https://www.aaaai.org; the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America at https://www.aafa.org; and pollen.com.

Patricia Schoch is originally from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, but has lived in North Carolina for 30 years. A retired nurse, children’s book author, and freelance writer, she now resides in Wake Forest. Pat can be reached at patricsch@itsallwrite.net.

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