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Health & Wellness

Suddenly sneezing in Santa Cruz County? Spring allergy season in high gear; here’s your survival guide

Many plants are flowering this spring, spelling bad news for allergy sufferers. A potential solution when you’re outside: Break out that N-95.

It’s spring, and the Santa Cruz hills are alive with the sounds of hay fever: sniffling, coughing, wheezing and sneezing, all thanks to flowering plants.

From January to June, a combination of high winds, dry weather conditions and higher pollen counts can make the 8-12 percent of Americans who suffer from seasonal allergies turn into a stuffy, itchy mess — even in a county where clean sea breezes keep the air impeccably clean.

“Santa Cruz County is the perfect environment for tree pollen, and it makes some people very miserable.” says James Wolfe, a member of Allergy and Asthma Associates of Northern California, who practices in Santa Cruz. “Our schedules are absolutely packed full of patients with seasonal allergies right now.”

In Santa Cruz, where winter is mild, spring is long, and summer isn’t too hot, allergy season can last for months, with overlapping pollination windows for trees, flowers, and grasses.

It’s a complicated cycle worth unraveling — all in the name of offering relief to those who are sneezing, coughing and rubbing itchy eyes. Read all the way to the end of this “Spring Allergy 101" guide for a secret weapon in the allergy fight — one that you might already be using.

Mother nature’s timing

It’s no coincidence that many plants bloom during the windiest time of year. When warming spring air rises in the atmosphere, changes in air pressure yield strong winds over the land. When this happens, many trees are locked and loaded, ready to cast their microscopic pollen grains to the breezes. Eventually, the grains might land on the flowers or cones of other plants of the same species, where they will fertilize eggs and create new seeds.

On a bad day, pollen counts — the number of pollen grains collected per cubic meter of air over 24 hours — will reach about 9-12 grains (moderate is between 5 and 7). Santa Cruz County has had consistent, moderately high counts since March 20, according to pollen.com, and The Weather Channel predicts higher levels in the coming week. Higher counts means a higher likelihood that pollen will enter noses, throats, and eyes.

Major Pollen Producers

With some species favored by homeowners as decorative shrubs and other species common natives in California, cypress and juniper trees are everywhere in Santa Cruz County. “They may look pretty and innocent, but they’re waiting to attack” your nose, eyes and throat, Wolfe says. He adds that the worst pollen producers aren’t who you’d suspect.

Plants with bright yellow flowers like the black acacia tree are often blamed for allergies and hay fever, but if a plant’s flowers are bright and colorful, they are waiting on insects to distribute their heavy, sticky pollen — not the wind. Junipers, cypresses, oaks, and olives, however, have small or bland-colored flowers (or cones), and rely heavily on the air to carry their pollen to other trees. According to Wolfe, these tree species, as well as many grasses which will bloom later in May and June, are top culprits for seasonal allergies on the Central Coast.

The shape and chemical makeup of pollen grains, which differ from species to species, also determine the severity of irritation. For example, pines are known to release huge amounts of pollen each year, coating cars and streets with yellow dust. But their pollen doesn’t aggravate our immune systems much, so they are generally considered non-allergenic. Ragweed on the other hand, is a major irritant, despite its relatively narrow distribution along the dunes of the Pacific coastline.

The allergy mechanism, explained

Pollen belongs in flowers and on fuzzy bee butts, not in our noses, eyes, and mouths. While pollen isn’t dangerous, our immune systems consider it a foreign invader that must be destroyed. Pollen grains illicit a slew of symptoms that range in severity from person to person, or depend on the species of plant the pollen came from. In order to flush invaders from the body, our eyes water, noses run, and itchy throats make us cough and spit — effectively forcing the allergens out and into tissues and sleeves.

Symptoms: Am I purging pollen or contracting COVID-19?

Wolfe, who sees many COVID-19 and allergy patients, says the symptoms do overlap, but by and large the virus tends to cause a more severe, full body immune response, and feels more like a common cold or the flu. More aches, more fatigue, and sick friends are the most common signs he looks for when diagnosing COVID-19 in his patients. He adds that hives and itchy skin are not typical pollen allergy symptoms, unless the skin has come into direct contact with pollen through eye-rubbing or activities like gardening, or laying in grass.

Clear your head — with habits, meds, and masks

Of course, one way to reduce seasonal allergies is to avoid spending time outdoors, especially midday, when pollen counts tend to be highest. Keeping windows closed and washing off before getting in bed can help, but telling people to stay cooped up inside during some of the nicest weather months of the year is hard to do.

Instead, Wolfe says he resorts to a few solutions:

  • Over the counter allergy medications like Claritin and Allegra are widely used and are generally effective for mild to severe allergies. Off-brand versions are a great, cheaper alternative.
  • Nasal steroids like Flonase and eye drops can relieve itchiness and congestion, also available over the counter.
  • For long-term relief that requires a bit more patience, allergy shots are a good option for people suffering from severe seasonal allergies. This procedure involves getting progressively stronger injections of the very allergens that anger the immune system, helping the body build up immunity over time. Many patients experience complete relief within a couple years, and Wolfe says the results can be “dramatically positive.”
  • Keep wearing a mask. The pandemic has us wearing masks to keep out viral molecules, but masks can also be helpful in filtering out pollen. Form fitting, N-95 masks are a good bet to protect the nose and mouth, and wearing a hat or sunglasses when spending time outside can help keep pollen out of the hair and eyes as well.