A massive cloud of pine pollen blasts off a small cone. Pine pollen is perhaps the most visible pollen, but it’s typically not the worst for allergy sufferers. The much smaller pollen particles from hardwoods — oaks, sweet gums, mulberries among them — are the ones that can penetrate your defenses and, if your system is so disposed, make you feel rotten. About one in five adults and nearly one in three children are allergic to tree pollens, says an Atlanta allergist. (Curtis Compton / AJC file)
Photo: Curtis Compton
Photo: Curtis Compton

Pollen season: The mighty oak and its microscopic misery

It’s hard to look out upon an April day, with the sun shining and the dogwoods flowering, and not think the world is a wonderful, even magical place.

But all that beauty distracts you from the truth: the promiscuous trees are out there having their weird, invisible sex. The oak, the ash, the elm. Yes, even the mulberry. They’re all spewing microscopic spores into the spring breeze, tiny male bits that fly off in search of tiny female bits to make baby trees.

It is in this dark time that Atlanta, City of Trees, becomes Atlanta, City of Sneeze.

Hardwood tree pollens are the chief culprit in allergies just now. These mighty trees produce pollens so small you can’t see them. But if you’re sensitive to that particular pollen, the tiny grains can make you feel like hell. This week, conditions are just about perfect for tree pollens, and we’ve seen the highest pollen counts in three years. The count declined to 4,208 on Friday from 5,354 on Thursday. Anything greater than 1,500 is “very high.” So, in technical terms, we went from dang high on Thursday to almost as dang high on Friday.

Dr. Stanley Fineman, an allergist at Atlanta Allergy & Asthma, has treated runny noses, congested sinuses and besieged bronchia for 40 years in Georgia. He knows his pollen. Fineman says about 30 percent of kids and about 20 percent of adults suffer from pollen allergies. For them, he cautions that pollen allergies are not just an annoyance.

“Some people are more allergic to certain things than others,” the doctor said. “Those patients might not even be able to go outside during the day. I saw a patient today who was having increased asthma attacks just from being outside.”

‘I live off a Neti pot and sinus spray’

That’s the thing about pollen. Besides the typical congestion, sneezing and wheezing, Fineman says, it can bring on malaise — that general feeling of debility and run-downity that prompts co-workers to check your pulse.

Seriously, untreated pollen allergies carry their own set of complications, such as sinus infections and, as noted, worsened asthma.

Diane McGough of Avondale Estates can tell you a thing or two about April.

“This time of year is just really, really difficult for me,” said McGough, 62. “I have allergies and asthma. I live off a Neti pot and nasal spray.”

In case there’s anyone left in Atlanta who doesn’t know what a Neti pot is: you fill a plastic squeeze bottle with salty water and then, um, irrigate your nasal passages. It’s actually not as dreadful as it sounds.

McGough, who moved to Atlanta 20 years ago and lives in Avondale Estates, said something else most of us can relate to:

“It’s worse since I moved here.”

The worst pollens tend to be invisible

Fineman says the typical tree pollen season starts in mid-March and runs through mid-April, easing off just in time for grass pollens to take the stage.

“This year’s been a little delayed, because we didn’t really see the high pollen counts until the very end of March,” he said. “Part of it , if you recall, it was very cold in March. It was also very wet. Plants tend to release their pollen on warmer days and dry days and when there’s wind to blow it around.”

The delays may have angered the pollens, because they’re way worse so far this year than last. The worst count in the first 13 days of April 2017 was 2,507 — something to sneeze at, but only half as bad as Thursday’s 5,354.

The typical hardwood pollen particle is about 20 microns in diameter (“micron” from “micro,” meaning very small, and “n,” which is, you know, a letter). You can’t see them, and they can pass through your defenses easily. Wearing a surgical mask during tree pollen season looks kind of weird on the MARTA train, and Fineman says it’s not a great shield against tree pollens.

Softwood pine pollens, on the other hand, can be as large as 40 to 50 microns, which makes them visible. And for some reason — maybe the greater size makes them more aggressive — they try to mate with your Prius. Newcomers to Georgia may be forgiven for wondering whether there was a nuclear accident whose bright yellow fallout has covered the car.

Treating your allergies

Fineman says the field has veered away from antihistamines as the first line of defense and has now embraced nasal steroids as the more effective treatment of symptoms. Think Nasacort or Flonase or Rinocort.

Beyond that, however, it’s not a bad idea to find out what you’re allergic to. Fineman said some therapies can alter your chemistry so you’re no longer so sensitive to a given pollen.

The typical symptoms of pollen allergies — runny nose, sinus congestion, itchy eyes — are on the rise this week.

“We’re seeing more of that now. People are more aware of it, and I think that’s really imporant,” Fineman said. “People realize that allergy symptoms can cause more than just a little bit of sniffling. It can really detrimentally affect people’s lives.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.