Why your allergies are acting up now and how to get relief

If it’s spring in Georgia, there will be pollen. It’s not too late to take steps to minimize the symptoms
In this 2023 file photo, Frank Williams pedaled by the blooming trees of Piedmont Park.  (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)



In this 2023 file photo, Frank Williams pedaled by the blooming trees of Piedmont Park. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Affectionately known as a “city in the forest,” Atlanta’s lush green canopy also makes this metropolis notorious for high pollen counts — especially in the spring when tree pollen peaks.

“We are sort of in the thick of the season or at least the beginning of the peak,” said Dr. Lily Hwang of Atlanta Allergy & Asthma, a large allergy practice in Georgia. “We are seeing patients come in with ... watery, itchy eyes, runny nose, congestion.”

Dr. Lily Hwang with Atlanta Allergy & Asthma Contributed

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Credit: cust

Severe seasonal allergies can interfere with daily activities. Symptoms can include severe headaches and brain fog, preventing people from enjoying spring-like temperatures outdoors and even sabotaging their sleep.

The pollen count has reached moderate levels according to the latest measurements released Wednesday by the Atlanta Allergy & Asthma’s pollen counting station, which is certified by the National Allergy Bureau. The Weather Channel’s 15-day allergy forecast predicted tree pollen will reach “very high” levels on Thursday.

Because there are other viruses circulating this time of year, it can be difficult to tell the difference. According to the Mayo Clinic, allergies never cause a fever and only rarely cause a sore throat. Many other symptoms — a stuffy or runny nose, sneezing and tiredness — may be similar to a cold.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution connected with Hwang to talk about what’s causing the widespread allergy misery these days. She offered steps and strategies to help reduce symptoms.

File photo of Ron Hoffman enjoying Piedmont Park in midtown with his black Labrador Retriever, Georgia. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)


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What triggers springtime allergies?

If you experience allergic symptoms in the springtime, you are likely reacting to pollen from trees.

Contrary to popular belief, flowering trees such as cherry trees are usually not the problem. The pollen from flowering trees tends to be bigger and stickier and less likely to travel in the wind. The bright yellow pollen you see coating cars and sidewalks and cars is also not to blame for making people sneeze.

It’s the hardwood trees, including oak, hickory and birch trees, red cedar. They have light, powdery and often invisible pollen causing the most havoc. These hardwoods produce lightweight pollen which can be carried by the wind, sometimes over vast distances.

How can we reduce our exposure to pollen?

Hwang recommends regularly checking daily pollen counts. Severe allergy sufferers should try to stay indoors on the windiest, driest days, because the pollen is usually higher than after a good rain, which helps clear pollen from the air. High pollen days, she said, are not the time to go for a run or do yardwork chores such as lawn mowing, weed pulling, and gardening — all of which can aggravate your pollen allergy.

If you’ve been outside a lot during the day, pollen is on your body and clothes. Upon arriving home, immediately take a shower and change clothes.

Whenever pollen counts are high, make sure to keep your doors and windows closed. You can keep your indoor air clean by using high-efficiency air filters on air conditioners, using a dehumidifier, putting an air purifier called a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter near your bed, and cleaning your floors often.

In this file photo, Christie Miller walked her dogs Wade (left) and Wynn (right) under the blooming trees of Chastain Park in Atlanta. Experts recommend cleaning dogs paws to reduce the amount of pollen entering the home. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)


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Take extra steps for your dogs and cats

Hwang says a quick wipe down of your pet’s coat, skin and paws each time they return from outdoors will help remove excess pollen and allergens when a full bath isn’t possible. If your pets sleep on the bed, consider a separate blanket or sheet for them to sleep on.

Over-the-counter medications can help, but start early

Hwang said ideally allergy sufferers have already started taking medication at least two weeks ago because it’s best to start taking medication a couple weeks before your allergy symptoms typically arrive.

But the medications can also be taken as needed during the season. You’ll just have to be patient (and likely suffer a little longer) before they fully kick in.

Nasal steroid sprays are often the best first treatment option. They block inflammation and swelling caused by airborne irritants and allergens, and prevent allergy symptoms. Over-the-counter steroid nasal sprays include: Triamcinolone (sold under the brand name Nasacort); fluticasone (Flonase or Flonase Sensimist); and budesonide (Rhinocort).

These medications usually start working after a few days. They can take a few weeks to reach peak effect and work best when used consistently, at least during your allergy season.

Many oral antihistamines available without a prescription can also be a remedy. Examples of oral antihistamines include cetirizine (Zyrtec Allergy), fexofenadine (Allegra Allergy) and loratadine (Claritin, Alavert).

Over-the-counter antihistamine eye drops can also be helpful. Hwang said don’t use decongestant eye drops designed to reduce the redness in the whites of your eyes, which can intensify the symptoms in the eyes.

When is it time to see an allergist or ear, nose and throat specialist?

If a couple of weeks or more go by, you’ve tried drugstore medications and symptoms don’t improve, it may be time to see a doctor.

An allergist can tell you what you are allergic to and help you avoid triggers. They can prescribe medications and help put together a plan to help prevent allergic reactions. This can include immunotherapy, which involves giving gradually increasing doses of the substance that triggers an allergic reaction. This treatment method allows the immune system to become desensitized to the allergen.

Also see a doctor if you are wheezing, have persistent coughing or discolored sinus discharge lasting more than a week, which could be a sign of a sinus infection.

How long will the pollen season last?

The spring pollen season can last until May, with the highest pollen counts usually between mid-March and mid-April.

But in the Southeast, there are multiple pollen seasons with different pollen types dominating. After the tree pollen season ends, grass pollen typically arrives in the late spring and early summer, followed by weed pollen in late summer to fall.