If you sniffle and sneeze every spring (or as early as late winter in some states), it could be due to a tree pollen allergy. Tree pollen is the first pollen to appear each year in the United States.
Tree pollen is the cause of most spring pollen allergy symptoms. Tree pollen allergy causes seasonal allergic rhinitis. (Some people call this “hay fever.”) Pollen from weeds and grasses also trigger allergic rhinitis.
Tree pollen season also often overlaps with grass pollen in the late spring and summer. Throughout the U.S., trees produce the most pollen from March through May. But in some regions, such as the South, trees may produce pollen as early as January and peak at multiple times during the year.1
Some trees produce pollen you can see (such as pine trees that release a fine, yellow dust that covers outdoor surfaces). Some trees produce pollen that is very small and can’t be seen.
Tree pollen tends to be light and carried by the wind. Because of this, it can easily find its way into your eyes, nose, and lungs. When that happens, tree pollen triggers the symptoms of allergic rhinitis.
Allergic rhinitis is very common. Up to 30% of the people in the U.S. have allergic rhinitis. Talk with your health care provider about your symptoms. If they suspect allergic rhinitis, they will likely recommend allergy therapies. If your symptoms do not improve, seek a referral to a board-certified allergist.
A board-certified allergist can diagnose a tree pollen allergy. They will ask about your personal and medical history, do a physical exam, and run tests to find out types of trees you are allergic to. Board-certified allergists know how to interpret the test results to give you an accurate diagnosis.
If you have a tree pollen allergy, you will only have symptoms when the pollen that you are allergic to is in the air. Symptoms of allergic rhinitis include:
If you have asthma and are allergic to tree pollen, you may have allergic asthma. This means tree pollen triggers your asthma symptoms:
A tree pollen allergy can also cause you to have itching or swelling in or around your mouth when you eat certain foods. This is called oral allergy syndrome (OAS) or pollen food allergy syndrome (PFAS). (It can happen to people allergic to some grasses or weeds as well.)
If you are allergic to certain trees, such as birch or alder tree pollen, you may react to certain foods.
OAS/PFAS happens because some tree pollen is similar to the protein in some fruits, vegetables, and nuts.2 Your immune system gets confused and can’t tell the difference between the two. Eating these foods may cause your mouth, lips, tongue, and throat to itch or swell.
Birch tree pollen can cross-react with:
Alder tree pollen can cross-react with:
Talk with an allergist if you think you have OAS/PFAS. Ask them:
Some of the trees that cause the most allergy symptoms throughout the United States are:3
Most trees bear “male” and “female” flowers on the same plant. However, there are some “female” trees that produce fruit and seeds, and do not release pollen into the air. These trees rely on insects and small animals to transfer pollen for pollination. There are also “male” trees that do not produce fruit and seeds, but release pollen instead. These trees rely on the wind to carry pollen to other trees for pollination.
Historically, city planners have designed streets and parks to have wind-pollinating (or “male”) trees instead of fruiting (or insect-pollinating) trees. The reason why is the fruiting trees can produce seeds, fruits, or pods that may be a challenge to clean up. The downside of more wind-pollinating plants is increased pollen production. Planting only “male” trees is sometimes referred to as “botanical sexism.” This practice leads to more pollen in American cities.
Experts believe this is part of the reason why pollen counts have been increasing.4
Climate change is leading to longer growing seasons. This is a major source of increased pollen. The trees are releasing pollen for longer periods during the year and the pollen amounts released appear to be higher and stronger. Climate change is also causing increased carbon dioxide gas in the air, which stimulates trees to make more pollen.
There is no cure for a tree pollen allergy, but you can manage it. There are many allergy treatment options to help you.
It’s helpful to know what types of trees you are allergic to. You can reduce your exposure to the trees you are allergic to by watching pollen reports for your area. You can also learn what time of year tree pollen starts to appear in your area so you can start allergy treatment before it begins for better relief during the season.
Allergy Medicine Guide for Pollen Allergy
Nasal rinse: Using a saline (saltwater) nose rinse can help cut down mucus and rinse pollen out of your nose. Remember to use these as directed.
Nose sprays: Corticosteroid nose sprays are effective and have few side effects. They treat the swelling and inflammation in your nose. (Examples include Nasacort®, FLONASE®, and RHINOCORT®.) Antihistamine nasal sprays such as Astelin and Patanase are also effective options.
Eye drops: Allergy eye drops can be very helpful in managing eye allergy symptoms. They can relieve burning sensation, itchiness, redness, increased tearing, and swelling. Common eye drops include SYSTANE® ZADITOR®, Optivar, and Pataday®. In addition, artificial tears can be helpful.
Antihistamines: Antihistamines come in pill, liquid, or nasal spray form. They can relieve sneezing and itching in the nose and eyes. They also reduce a runny nose and, to a lesser extent, nasal stuffiness. Look for a long-acting, non-drowsy antihistamine. (Examples include ZYRTEC®, Claritin®, Allegra®, CLARINEX®.)
Decongestants: Decongestants are available as pills, liquids, nasal sprays, or drops. They help shrink the lining of the nasal passages and relieve stuffiness. They generally are only used for a short time (usually three days or less – examples include SUDAFED®, Vicks Sinex™, Afrin®). Check with your doctor before using decongestants if you have high blood pressure, glaucoma, thyroid disease, or trouble urinating.
Leukotriene modifiers (such as montelukast): This medicine can help by blocking chemicals your body releases when you have an allergic reaction. (Examples include SINGULAIR®, Zyflo CR®, ACCOLATE®.)
Cromolyn sodium: This is a nasal spray that blocks the release of chemicals that cause allergy symptoms, including histamine and leukotrienes. This medicine has few side effects, but you must take it four times a day. (Examples include NasalCrom®)
Trees that produce allergenic pollen live in every state. If you move, you may get some relief for a short time. But you can develop allergies to the trees in your new location in a few years. Instead, work with an allergist on a solid treatment plan.
Do You Live in an Allergy Capital™?
Your location can have an impact on your seasonal allergies. AAFA’s Allergy Capitals™ report looks at the top 100 most challenging cities in the continental United States to live with seasonal pollen allergies.
Medical Review: June 2022 by John James, MD
1. Lo, F., Bitz, C.M., Battisti, D.S. et al. Pollen calendars and maps of allergenic pollen in North America. Aerobiologia 35, 613–633 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10453-019-09601-2
2. Oral allergy syndrome (OAS) | AAAAI. (n.d.). Retrieved February 12, 2022, from https://www.aaaai.org/tools-for-the-public/conditions-library/allergies/oral-allergy-syndrome-(oas)
3. Tree and Plant Allergy Info for Research - Allergen and Botanic Reference Library. (n.d.). www.pollenlibrary.com. Retrieved April 19, 2022, from https://www.pollenlibrary.com/
4. Ogren, T. L. (2015, April 29). Botanical Sexism Cultivates Home-Grown Allergies. Scientific American Blog Network. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/botanical-sexism-cultivates-home-grown-allergies/