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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Fighting the flower wars: you versus springtime allergies

Published: April 8, 2011
Section: Arts, Etc.

Despite our usual rainy, windy, cold days, peeks of sunshine and fresh mulch show that somebody pressed the bloom button on campus. Sun and above-freezing weather always bring a noticeable change in happiness and positive emotions on campus, along with a surplus of flip-flops and sneezing people. Yes, as peppy and bright as campus may seem, I’ve noticed the sniffles plaguing our poor Rudolph noses, including my own. While questioning whether I needed to dig out the Purell and sanitizing wipes I have left over from flu season, I quickly realized the source of these new-found campus boogers: seasonal allergies. Blast them!

This non-contagious ailment, which puts a damper on our outdoor fun, is one that is quite common, annoying and surprisingly treatable. So before flowers and pollen go into full attack mode, I’ve researched some preventative methods and treatment techniques we can use to fight seasonal allergies.

According to the National Jewish Health website, allergies can be mainly attributed to genetics and early exposure in childhood to environmental factors. When someone is first exposed to something to which they are allergic—think pollen, for example—the body’s white blood cells, also known as T-cells, recognize the allergen and alert the body of the “foreign invader” while also instructing the B-cells to produce IgE antibodies. An allergen by definition is an antigen that is usually harmless but that the immune system interprets as toxic. These antibodies then produce an inflammatory response of the immune system in the skin and respiratory track in order to attack the allergen. After the primary exposure, the body already has the IgE antibodies ready for attack in case one encounters the allergen again; such contact causes the body to release histamine, which is essentially a chemical messenger that tells the immune system to prepare for attack.

Histamine is thus the true cause of all the common allergy symptoms like warming and swelling of the skin, itchy and watery eyes, sneezing and increased mucus production, and swelling of the throat. It is important to realize allergic reactions can either be immediate or delayed up to six hours after exposure.

So how do you know if you’re at risk this upcoming season for allergies? The four primary ways through which doctors make diagnoses is based on clinical history, family history, physical exams and allergy tests that consist of skin-allergen testing or the testing of blood-sensitizing antibodies. Unfortunately, without a history of the allergy, people often don’t find out about their allergies until after an allergic reaction to primary exposure has occured.

What’s especially hard about seasonal outdoor allergies is that, unlike food allergies which can be somewhat controlled, we have no control over the pollen count or grass spores in the air come springtime. The five most common outdoor allergens are pollen, mold, poisonous plants, insects and air pollution. Once you’ve realized that what you thought was a cold is actually outdoor allergies, you should implement preventative steps to avoid a reaction.

One way you can ease your symptoms is to avoid being outside on windy days or to cover your mouth with a scarf to avoid allergens being blown around.

Another is to check the pollen count for the day and plan your activities accordingly; if the pollen count is high, you may not want to fly your kite that day. Or, if you check a seasonal calendar and know which weeks will have high ragweed- or oak-allergen counts, you can take an over-the-counter allergy drug. One that is particularly effective is an antihistamine, which blocks the histamine receptors in your body so it cannot propagate its immunoresponse with the annoying side effects of allergies.

You could also take a drug that specifically targets individual symptoms. For instance, you could use a decongestant, which relieves swollen nasal tissues and mucus.

You can also change your clothes and shower after outdoor exercise, which allows you to play outside and remain unaffected later in the day. This rinses off any allergens left on your skin or hair and can also protect friends or family members with similar allergies. Lastly, you can enjoy more springtime fun in the sun by wearing goggles to eradicate irritation from allergens. Remember: When you see me walking around campus with my Scuba Steve goggles, I’m just fighting those dandelions. No big deal.

The best part of springtime is enjoying fresh air with people you like, so don’t let your allergies hinder your fun. Just try out these different methods to fight back and enjoy!

Tune in for more health tips and send me an e-mail at with any health-related questions you may have.