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Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department
Environmental Public Health

Pollen and Outdoor Allergies


Allergies and You

An allergy is a reaction to any of a number of allergens. Allergic reactions occur when an allergen enters our bodies through the eyes, nose, or lungs. The allergens trigger an over-reaction by our immune systems. The immune system produces antibodies, which work to fight the allergens by attaching to the allergy cells. This results in the release of a chemical called 'histamine', which irritates the body, causing itching, swelling, and watering eyes. Allergic reactions can trigger serious health problems, including asthma.

The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI) estimates that about one in six people suffer from some type of seasonal allergies. This statistic means that approximately 46,000 people in Lancaster County suffer from allergic symptoms.

Most people with allergies already know that they have them. Most can tell you within a few days of when they will likely experience symptoms. However, parents of newborn babies might not know their children are allergic. Sometimes people will move into the Lancaster County area from other parts of the country or state. Perhaps they have had allergies all their lives but did not know it because the plants to which they were allergic did not grow where they lived or the conditions did not produce a significant amount of pollen.

If someone begins to show some of the signs of allergy, that person might be having an allergic reaction. A physician can conduct a series of tests to determine if the person has an allergy, what that person is allergic to, and how sensitive the person is to that particular allergy trigger.

If you suspect that you, or someone you know has an allergy, consult your physician or an allergy specialist to be tested.

The information on this page is designed to help you better understand allergies, the causes of allergic reactions, and help you reduce the risk of allergic reactions to you and your family. Links to external resources are provided to help you gain an even greater understanding of the cause of allergies, symptoms, and risk prevent/treatment.

Allergens
Pollen
Mold
Smoke
Allergy Symptoms

For more information order the Museum Notes "Ragweed's Revenge" or "Something to Sneeze At" from the Nebraska State Museum, 307 Morrill Hall, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, NE, 68588-0338 or go to the web site at Museum Notes - Botany for ordering information.

More information about allergies and allergens can be found at AAAAI Frequently Asked Questions, and also at Mayo Clinic - Allergies.

Allergens in the Air

An allergen is something that triggers an allergic reaction. The following are the most common airborne outdoor allergens:

For information about allergens inside your home, visit our Indoor Air and Asthma page.

Pollen

Pollen grains Pollen is used by plants to fertilize each other and grow new plants. Plants release pollen into the air. The wind carries the pollen to other plants, and sometimes to human noses, eyes, and lungs. Symptoms of pollen allergy include allergic rhinitis, coughing, and watering eyes.

Some pollen sticks to the body of a carrier. The carrier can be the fur on an animal, hair, the feathers of birds, the bodies or legs of insects, or human clothing. This type of pollen is seldom carried on the wind (airborne). The grains of these pollens are sticky and larger than airborne pollen. Grains that are carried by animals seldom remain in the air long enough to cause allergic reactions.

Most pollen grains cannot be seen with the naked eye. Airborne pollen grains are extremely tiny. The smallest can be carried on the wind for many miles.

The most common sources of pollen are grasses, weeds, and trees. Each of these pollen sources have different seasonal peaks. This chart is based on over 12 years of data collected by a team of specialists from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and research conducted by Dr. Margaret R. Bolick. It shows the average percent of days during the allergy season when pollens are likely to be in the air. The lines indicate the average range of low (See Glossary), moderate (See Glossary), high (See Glossary), or very high (See Glossary) levels of pollen by plant type.

It is important to note that no one can predict exactly which days will be high pollen days. Nonetheless, armed with the information provided in this chart, allergy sufferers and their families will be able to anticipate when are the most likely times to take precautions.

A couple of good sources for local pollen counts are Nebraska Weseleyan University, and the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

Click here for the Pollen Count from Nebraska Weselyan University

Click here for the Pollen Count from the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology

You can also view detailed charts for plant pollen type on monthly bases by selecting from the lists below.

Select trees, grasses, or weeds from this drop-down box to see the monthly levels for each respective pollen type:        

Select the desired month from this drop-down box to see the levels for various types of pollen:                                  

Mold

Mold spore Mold, a form of fungus, are found throughout nature. Unlike plants, mold need food and water sources in order to thrive. This food source is often in the form of a carbohydrate material, such as dead, damp wood or other cellulose-base materials.

As mentioned before, mold reproduces by the formation of microscopic spores. These spores can become airborne, and much like pollen, can find their way into the human body. Once in the body, mold can cause people to develop fungal infections, or severe immune reactions. Unlike pollen, mold spores rarely effect the eyes. The primary symptom of mold allergy is allergic rhinitis.

There are many types of outdoor mold spores but only a few are allergenic. The most commonly found molds are Alternaria and Cladosporium (Hormodendrum). Other allergenic outdoor molds include Helminthosporium, Epicoccum, Fusarium, Mucor, and Rhizopus are the major culprits.

Daily mold spore counts can be found with the daily pollen counts provided by the AAAAI.

Smoke

Smoke from grass fire Smoke is generally not considered to be an allergen, but is considered an irritant. While smoke, in and of itself, will typically not trigger an allergic reaction, smoke can often exacerbate existing allergic conditions. Because of this, many people may mistakenly conclude that they are allergic to smoke, when the truth is that the smoke is most likely exacerbating an underlying condition or an existing allergy.

In Lancaster County, the majority of land-use is dedicated to agriculture, as is the case with the surrounding counties. Each year in the spring, many farmers and landowners, as well as the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, will conduct controlled burning of agricultural lands and grasslands to remove old, dead vegetation, clearing the way for the growth of new vegetation. This burning is often beneficial to the soil, but can create a lot of smoke. In addition to controlled burns in the area surrounding the City of Lincoln and Lancaster County, large portions of the 'Flint Hills' area of Kansas are burned every year to clear old vegetation. South winds will often carry the smoke from these burns hundreds of miles to the north, often into Lancaster County. As a result, residents may notice a persistent smoke odor in the spring months.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) provides a map service that indicates fires across the United States. This map also indicates smoke plumes originating from significant fire events.

Click here for the NOAA map of satellite detected fires

In addition, the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department monitors the ambient air conditions using particulate monitors on the roof of the Health Department at 3140 N Street. The particulate monitoring provides data on particulate concentrations in the air. Past monitoring has shown elevated particulate levels coinciding with periods of extensive controlled burning. The Health Department utilizes the particulate monitoring data to produce a daily "Air Quality Index" or AQI. The AQI is updated daily, and is a good tool for parents and at-risk individuals to determine what precautions may be necessary when heading outdoors.

Click here for the LLCHD's Air Quality Index

Symptoms

Allergic reaction symptoms include itchy, watery eyes (known as allergic conjunctivitis); coughing or tightness in the chest; and/or sneezing and runny nose (known as allergic rhinitis). Other symptoms may include burning palate and throat. Allergic reactions can be mild or severe, varying between individuals. If a person has wheezing and/or shortness of breath, the allergy may have progress to become asthma.

The severity of a person's reaction depends on how sensitive the person is to a particular allergen and how much allergen is present in the air. Plants release different amounts of pollen during different months. Someone who is allergic to a particular tree pollen might suffer during March but show no allergic symptoms the rest of the year.

Watery eyes Even within a month some days are worse than others. The chart provided on this webpage (above) will assist allergy sufferers to identify when they are most likely to have reactions and how severe these reactions might be.

Seasonal Allergic Rhinitis, also commonly called "hay fever", is characterized by runny and/or nose, sneezing, congestion, problems with smell, and/or sore throat. Treatment can include taking anti-histamine or decongestant medications, but your doctor may prescribe other treatments based on the type and severity of your symptoms, your age, and whether you have other medical conditions (such as asthma). In Nebraska, seasonal allergic rhinitis usually begins as early as March and ends in October with the first frost.

Allergic Conjunctivitis is characterized by red and/or watery eyes, puffy eyelids, intense itching or burning eyes, and/or stringy eye discharge. Treatment can include taking anti-histimine medication, or applying a cool compress to the eyes.

Always consult your doctor before treatment to find out which treatment will be right for you.

Glossary

Allergens A trigger that causes an allergic reaction.
Low Individuals who are extremely sensitive to these pollens will experience symptoms.
Moderate Many individuals sensitive to these pollens will experience symptoms.
High Individuals with any sensitivity to these pollens will experience symptoms.
Very High Almost all individuals with any sensitivity at all to these pollens will experience symptoms. Extremely sensitive people could have severe symptoms.


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