The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

March 22, 2012

Bees may love it, but pollen is a real irritant for humans

By Jean Cole
jean@athensnews-courier.com

— That powdery dusting of yellow grains atop your car, patio and yourself may be irksome, but it also signals the romance of reproduction.

For many people in the Tennessee Valley, spring is a double-edged sword. The fragrant flowering trees, shrubs and plants are resplendent but their pollen leaves their eyes feeling gritty and the sinuses perpetually squeezed.

Don’t blame a mild winter for the yellow-orange blanket covering North Alabama this past week.  Trees, particularly conifers, typically spread pollen through the air every spring, said Doug Chapman, regional extension agent for commercial horticulture from the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service.

Just as the male human produces sperm, so do trees and some other plants produce pollen in order to spread its male genes to the egg-containing parts of plants of the same species. Their offspring are seeds and fruits.

“It is normal procedure for plants to pollinate each other this time of year,” Chapman said. “Though, we are having an early spring.”

Firmly rooted trees can’t very well be expected to buy candy, flowers and go on dinner dates.

This year’s pollen production is not abnormally high, Chapman said, though all of the pollen dust floating around might lead you to believe so.  Late March is, however, peak tree pollen season. The tree pollen count for Athens is in the “very high” category this week, according to The Weather Channel.com. Huntsville is among the top 10 pollen hot spots nationwide, according to the website.

Chapman said conifers, including pines, spruces and firs, produce a tremendous amount of pollen this time of year, as do junipers.

“Most of your trees are wind pollinated using very mobile pollens,” he said.

Broadleaves such as oaks, box elder, elms, hickory, maple, pecan, cottonwoods, ashes, birches and walnuts also “mate” via wind pollination.

Flowering plants usually pollinate through bees, and are much less of a problem.

Grasses also produce pollen that irritates nasal mucosa. That season begins in April.

“There are some allergies associated with (pine) pollen,” Chapman said. “But, if you are having a problem right now it might not be the pollen you are seeing.  It could be another pollen you cannot see or mold spores.”

People often associate their allergy problems with what they see, he said. However, you may not be allergic to the particular pollen you are seeing.

“For example, when people are stopped up and farmers are defoliating cotton, everybody blames the defoliant,” Chapman said. “But, it is the ragweed pollen that is airborne in the fall that is very likely the problem.”

Chapman advises people to take pollen in stride.

“It’s just a couple of weeks and it is part of living on this planet,” he said. “If you are going to live in the southeast, you are going to have to put up with it.”

Easy for the non-sufferer.

If you have bothersome allergies or asthma, you will have to be more aggressive.

Prescription antihistamines, decongestants, and anti-inflammatory nasal inhalers can reduce symptoms. Allergy shots can reduce the body’s sensitivity to allergens over a period of time.

If you don’t want to use medicines, you should stay indoors as much as possible during pollination season, particularly the early morning, late afternoon and early evening. Shower after coming indoors. Use an electrostatic air filter that zaps indoor pollen. (Masks may not filter the tiniest pollen spores.) Some people have found relief from over-the-counter sinus irrigation kits that directs a large amount of saline solution through the nasal passages.