ACHOO! How to cope with all this pollen in the air

WICHITA FALLS (KFDX/KJTL) — As spring blows in, it brings truckloads of pollen with it.

Tree pollen, grass pollen and weeds can all cause allergic rhinitis, commonly known as hay fever. But what is pollen, where does it come from, and why is it so annoying?

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What is pollen?

According to Dr. William Cook, Professor Emeritus of Biology at MSU Texas, pollen are tiny grains that plants use to reproduce with each other.

"You'd need a high-powered microscope to see the grains," Cook said, pointing out images in a book that were taken with an electron microscope.

Since pollen is so small, it can travel with the wind and hopefully land on a plant instead of on you. In addition to the wind, small birds and insects can carry pollen from plant to plant, fertilizing them that way.

Pollen can come in various shapes, sizes and colors, and its differences are due to how a plant has evolved to best spread its DNA.

Some pollen carried by insects is "sticky" compared to pollen that has evolved to be carried by the wind, so it is less likely to cause hay fever because it's not blowing around outside.

For plants to reproduce, they must exchange their DNA with other plants of the same species. This becomes a challenge when you're rooted in the ground, as trees and grasses are.

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So how do they do it? Pollen.

"Pollen comes from the 'male' part of flower reproduction," Cook explained. "It's carried to the female stigma where it germinates and grows a pollen tube until it finds the female flower's DNA. Then, it produces a fruit or a seed."

The pollen season typically begins in February with trees and ends in November with weeds, though the growing season and plant species impact when plants produce pollen.

Leg of a bee with pollen at a magnification of x300.Close-up of bee on yellow flowerBellflower pollen. Coloured scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of pollen grains from a bellflower (Campanula sp.). Pollen grains are the male gametes (sex cells) of a plant. Magnification: x1000 when printed 10 centimetres wide.Pollen of cherry blossom (Prunus yedoensis) at a magnification of x1200.Chinese hibiscus pollen. Coloured scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of a pollen grain from a Chinese hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) flower. Pollen grains are the male gametes (sex cells) of a plant. They are microscopic, usually about 15 to 100 microns across, and just a pinch of pollen powder contains thousands and thousands of grains. Magnification: x800 when printed at 10 centimetres wide.Pollen of an Evening primrose plant at a magnification of x500.Geranium pollen at a magnification of x300Pollen on the pistil of a Japanese andromeda plant (Pieris japonica) at a magnification of x1000.Lily anther and pollenLily pollen at a magnification of x750Pollen of Melon. Magnification of x600.Pollen on Pistil of Mallow. Magnification of x600.Pollen on the pistil of a Mallow plant at a magnification of x150.Sunflower pollen, computer illustration.Bee collecting pollen from a sunflower.

How to cope with pollen?

Pollen is necessary to maintain a healthy ecosystem, so it's not going anywhere.

"Without flowers, you'd have no pollen, and without pollen, you'd have no flowers," Dr. Cook explained. "It's essential to nature but annoying to us."

Pollen creates an immune response in the body, which triggers the symptoms associated with hay fever, such as a runny nose, watery eyes and sneezing.

Cook explained that people react to different types of pollen, so symptoms may not occur when pollen counts are highest because the kind of pollen that triggers an allergic reaction isn't what's causing a high count that day.

"You'd need a large enough dose of pollen to activate an immune response," Cook said. "Allergy testing can help you find out what kind of pollen you're allergic to."

Antihistamines, like those found in over-the-counter allergy medicines, prevent the body from producing a histamine response that causes sneezing and other symptoms. They essentially tamp down the body's immune response.

Aside from antihistamines, there are several ways people can cope with pollen as spring continues.

Dr. Timothy Pegg, an Assistant Professor of Biology at MSU Texas, explained that pollen can settle on clothes and skin, making introducing it into one's system easier if it is not washed off.

"Shake it off, change and wash your clothes, and wear N-95 masks, like we did during COVID, if you're going to be working outside," Pegg said. "They may not be comfortable, but they'll keep pollen out."

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Pollen settles in the oral mucosa and mucous membranes, irritating the eyes, mouth and nose. Those experiencing hay fever symptoms can also invest in pollen-catching air filters for their air conditioners or a separate box-type air filtering machine for their homes.

"Pollen grains are very small, so air filters and masks aren't going to catch all of them, but they can catch enough not to cause symptoms," Pegg explained.

If the pollen has already gotten to you, you can try nasal rinses and expectorants like Mucinex to help your body flush it from your system.

Pegg also recommended hot teas, humidifiers and menthol products like Vick's Vapor to help open the sinuses to allow easier breathing. He cautioned that menthol products like Vick's should be used according to the label.

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