Minimizing Plant Allergies
February 13, 2007
Ahhh-choooo! Have you been sneezing lately? Well, we're right in the middle of the allergy season (in Albuquerque,NM), which is at it's worst in February, March, and April. Of course, with our mild climate, there's always something out there to sneeze at, but the Siberian elms, junipers, ashes, mulberries, cottonwoods, and willows are pollinating now!
What causes those red, itchy eyes, stopped up or runny noses, scratchy throats and clogged sinuses? In a word, pollen. Pollens are minuscule grains of protein produced by male plants (or the male portion of plants) which the plants use to cross-fertilize themselves. Some plants, especially those with bright pretty flowers, have sticky pollen, and rely on insects to transfer the pollen from one flower to another. Those plants don't cause problems, since the pollen stays put, either in the flower, or on the insects. The pollens that do cause allergies are from plants which rely on the wind to distribute the tiny granules from one place to another. These microscopic particles are produced by plants which have flowers that are not noticeable, either visually or by scent, such as the cottonwood or sycamore. Since these plants have to rely on the wind to carry their pollen, (and the wind isn't as reliable as insects), they have to produce massive quantities of the stuff, and the stuff has to be very light. The result? Well, for several months of the year, every time you take a breath, you're breathing in pollen. And if you're one of the many people who have a reaction to pollen, you're eyes will swell, your nose will stuff, and you'll feel miserable. You're in good company; it's estimated that as much as 20% of the population is allergic to something.
Even if you manage to get through the spring without an allergic attack, you still need to survive the blooming of the grasses, the weeds, and the sagebrush which bloom all summer, as well as the mold and mildew spores which are around all year long.
Rain helps, some. It washes the pollen out of the air, and weighs it down so it can't blow around. But it also stimulates the growth of mold and mildew, and encourages weeds to flourish. So instead of sneezing at one thing, you're sneezing at another. The warm winter and the dry spring we had last year made it one of the worst years for allergies that most of us suffers can remember!
Why are some of us allergic and some of us not? Mostly, it's genetics, which means you can blame your mother and father. On a more direct level, if you are allergic to something that means that your body produces a molecule called lgE, which is a kind of an antibody, related to those molecules which fight off infection. When you come in contact with whatever you are allergic to (called an allergen, in medical circles), you produce lgE. This sticks to a cell which makes histamine, and when more of that allergen comes along and sticks to the lgE stuck to that cell, it releases the histamine into your blood stream and we all know what happens after that. You itch and sneeze and cough and blow your nose a lot. (Obviously, this is very much simplified, but it"s pretty much how things happen.)
So what can you do about it? Well, to start with, don't plant those plants which produce air borne pollen. The city of Albuquerque is working on an ordinance which would either ban the sale of these plants out right, or require labeling of their pollen producing potential. The plants to watch out for are male junipers (females have little blue berries), fruitless mulberries, seedless ashes, and cottonless cottonwoods. The female versions of these trees, i.e., the fruiting mulberries, female ashes, and cotton-producing cottonwoods, don't produce pollen, so they don't cause allergies. Elms and sycamores are both male and female at the same time, so they all produce pollen. Pines and cedars are also air pollinated, but their pollen grains are covered with a heavy, thick waxy coating which keeps them from being a problem.
It's impossible to avoid pollen completely, unless perhaps you blast off on the space shuttle, or take a very long ocean voyage. If you have a sneeze-inducing plant in your yard, try hosing it off daily during it's pollinating season, to wash the pollen off the tree and into the ground. Wear a mask when working around pollinating trees and shrubs, and if your allergy is really bad, wear long sleeved shirts and long pants, and wash them (and you!) when you're done. And finally, save up your money and see an allergy specialist. He (or she) can tell you exactly what you are reacting to, as well as prescribe medicines that help fight the symptoms which make us all so miserable.