Ragweed Pollen Allergy

In the late summer, about 10 to 20% of Americans suffer from an allergy to ragweed. The symptoms make life miserable for those with allergies. This allergy can also cause asthma attacks for some.

You may feel miserable when ragweed plants release pollen into the air.  Your symptoms may continue until the first frost kills the plant. Depending on your location, ragweed season may last six to 10 weeks.

What Is Ragweed?

Ragweed is a weed that grows throughout the United States, especially in the Eastern and Midwestern states. Each plant lives only one season. But that one plant can produce up to 1 billion pollen grains.

When mid-August nights grow longer, ragweed flowers mature and release pollen. Warm weather, humidity and breezes after sunrise help release the pollen. The pollen then travels through the air to another plant to fertilize the seed so a new plant can grow next year.

Ragweed usually grows in rural areas. Near the plants, the pollen counts are highest right after dawn. The amount of pollen peaks in many urban areas between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., depending on the weather. Rain and morning temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit slow down the release of pollen.

Ragweed pollen can travel far. It has been found in the air 400 miles out to sea and 2 miles up in the atmosphere. But most falls close to its source.

Turf grasses and other perennial plants easily overgrow ragweed. But where streams of water, farming or chemicals upset the soil, like salting roads in the winter, ragweed will grow. It is often found along roadsides, river banks, in vacant lots and fields. Dormant seeds in the soil for decades may grow when the conditions are right.

What Is a Ragweed Allergy?

The job of your immune system is to find foreign substances, like viruses and bacteria, and get rid of them. This response normally protects us from harmful diseases. People with allergies have sensitive immune systems that react when they come in contact with allergens. When you are allergic to ragweed pollen and inhale it from the air, hay fever symptoms show up.

Seventeen types of ragweed grow in North America. Ragweed also belongs to a larger family of plants that can spread pollen by wind. These plants can also cause symptoms.

Members of this plant family include:

  • Sage
  • Burweed marsh elder
  • Rabbit brush
  • Mugworts
  • Groundsel bush
  • Eupatorium

Some family members spread their pollen by insects instead of by wind. They cause fewer allergic reactions. But sniffing these plants can cause symptoms.

Who Gets a Ragweed Allergy?

Seventy-five percent of people who are allergic to pollen are also allergic to ragweed. If you have allergies to one type of pollen, you tend to develop allergies to other types of pollen as well.

If you have a ragweed allergy, you may also get symptoms when you eat these foods:

  • Cantaloupes
  • Bananas
  • Chamomile tea
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Honey containing pollen from plants related to ragweed

What Are the Symptoms?

The allergic reaction to all plants that produce pollen is often called hay fever.

Some symptoms include:

  • Sneezing
  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Itchy eyes, nose and throat
  • Itchy or puffy eyes
  • Trouble sleeping

If you have severe allergies, ragweed might trigger asthma attacks, chronic sinusitis, headaches and sleep problems.

How Is It Diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask you about your medical history, do a physical exam and allergy testing. They may do a skin prick test to confirm your allergy.

For prick/scratch testing, the doctor or nurse places a small drop containing ragweed pollen on the skin. They will then lightly prick or scratch your skin with a needle through the drop. If you are sensitive to ragweed, you will develop redness, swelling and itching at the test site within 15 minutes. Sometimes your doctor may take a blood test to see if you have the antibody to ragweed. 

What Can I Do About It?

There is no cure for a ragweed allergy. The best control is to take the medicines prescribed by your doctor. Try to avoid contact with the pollen. But it is hard to avoid ragweed pollen during its pollination season. There are some ways to reduce your contact, though.

Track the pollen count for your area. The news media often reports the count for your area, especially when pollen is high. You also can get your area’s pollen counts from the National Allergy Bureau or from Pollen.com.

Stay indoors in central air conditioning when the pollen count is high. Air conditioning removes pollen from the indoor air. Get a Certified asthma and allergy friendly® HEPA filter for your air conditioner.

Get away from the pollen when possible. People in the Eastern and Midwestern states may get some relief by going west to the Rocky Mountains and beyond. Going to sea or abroad in late summer can lower your exposure. But check the area you plan to visit before you go. Ragweed might be there as well.

You might even consider moving to get away from ragweed. This will often help you feel better for a short time. But you can develop allergies to plants in your new location in a few years. A well-thought out treatment plan is a better way to live with your allergies.

Take anti-inflammatory or antihistamine medications. Current medicines work well to control hay fever symptoms. They can also help eye, nose and asthma symptoms. These new antihistamines don’t cause as much drowsiness as older ones. You can get them over-the-counter without a prescription.

Anti-inflammatory nose sprays also help and have few side effects. You can also find eye drops for eye symptoms. But you will need other treatments for allergic asthma.

For long-term relief, ask your doctor about allergy shots (immunotherapy). Allergy shots reduce the allergic response to specific allergens. Allergy shots involve giving injections of allergens in an increasing dose over time. They relieve symptoms for most people and can last for years to decades. With the right treatment plan, you should see major improvements in your symptoms.

Medical Review September 2015.