Allergic Living’s Guide to Fall Allergies
Updated Sept. 2016: In autumn, it’s an allergic onslaught. Ragweed and molds are in procreating mode, filling the air with nasty pollens and spores. Allergic Living magazine examines the season’s biggest offenders, and offers tips to keep the sneezing, watery eyes and general misery at bay.
Of the sources of autumn allergy misery, ragweed is by far the worst. It is the most common cause of seasonal allergies at this time of year and it’s everywhere. In the one year a ragweed plant lives, it will produce as many as one billion grains of pollen that can be carried by the wind up to 400 miles (650 kilometres) away. Giant and common ragweed are found across North America (though less commonly on the coasts), with the prime blooming season running from late August until the first frost kills off these adaptable plants. (Read also: “All About Ragweed.”)
Though ragweed is the worst offender, others can be problematic for those with allergies:
White Cockle (Silene pratensis) – Grows up to 3 feet tall, with oblong leaves that are 1 to 4 inches and 1 inch wide. White flowers open in the evenings; a prolific seed producer.
Cow Cockle (Vaccaria pyramidata) – Also known as China cockle, this weed has pretty bright pink flowers and bluish-green leaves. Height can reach 2 feet.
Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) – Perennial; grows between 1.5 to 6.5 feet, with a slightly hairy stem that is often reddish-brown. Leaves are dark green on top and silvery underneath; it gives off a sage-like aroma.
Curled Dock/Narrow-leaved Dock (Rumex crispus L) and Broad-leaved Dock (Rumex obtusifolius L) – Long, dark green leaves with wavy edges form a base for a 3-foot-long stem with clusters of green flowers.
Amaranth/Pigweed (Amaranthus) – a family of annual weeds that share similar characteristics: alternating oval-shaped leaves, green flower clusters and smooth stems. Prostrate Pigweed grows along the ground while Redroot Pigweed and Green Amaranth grow upright.
Lamb’s Quarters (Chenopodium album L) – An annual with bluish-green leaves that grows up to 2.5 meters (8 feet) high on stems with purple or red blotches. Flowers are tiny green petal-less pods with a blue tinge.
Russian Thistle (Salsola kali L) – Thin, spiky leaves sprout from multiple branches that are often striped with red. Purple-tinged stems grow to more than about 4 feet tall, which dry out and break off when mature, forming “tumbleweeds” that spread seeds.
Plantain (Plantago major L) – Long, narrow flower clusters (2.5 to 11.5 inches in length) hold numerous greenish-white flowers with wind-distributed pollen. Plant grows to 2 feet high, with smooth, spade-shaped leaves.
Mold can be found anywhere it’s damp, including in piles of decaying plant matter, composters, gutters, rotting wood (like those porch steps you meant to fix) and inside the house in basements, bathrooms and laundry rooms. Several types of mold cause allergy symptoms, and many of them thrive both indoors and out, including Alternaria, Aspergillus, Cladosporium, Panicillium, Epicoccum, Fusarium and Bipolaris. Your allergist can test you for sensitivity to the different types, though all are hard to avoid completely.
According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI), the weather plays a large role in how badly a mold allergy will flare. The damper the conditions, the more mold there will be.
How Mold Behaves
Mold allergen is spread on the wind in the form of spores, much like the lighter plant pollens. However, unlike weeds, which are generally destroyed by the first good cold snap, many molds simply become dormant over the winter, reappearing in the spring in soggy organic matter such as piles of mulch. During drier summer months, the mold allergic person’s symptoms wane, only to resurface in the fall with more rain and dropped leaves on the ground.
Inside, basements are a fungus’s best friend. With damp walls, leaky foundations, storage boxes full of paper, improper insulation and carpeting, the subterranean level can be the perfect breeding ground. That “musty” basement smell is a dead giveaway that mold has moved in.
What can you do?
• Keep windows closed to prevent pollen from getting indoors.
• If you are working outside, wear a face mask to filter allergens.
• Don’t hang laundry outside to dry – or you’ll end up wearing pollen.
• Vacuum frequently to reduce pollen caught in upholstery, carpets and curtains.
• Rake up leaves often and keep gutters clear.
• Move composters far from the house.
• Cut back trees and shrubs that impinge on the house – shady homes dry out more slowly, giving mold a chance to flourish.
• Clean up debris, including wood piles, grass clippings or building materials, which can harbour allergens.
• Run a dehumidifier in the basement – keep humidity levels below 50 per cent to avoid mold growth.
• Say goodbye to damp boxes of mementos and clothing.
• Remove any indoor mold around sinks and tubs promptly. Bleach is effective, but hazardous in its own right for those with irritant asthma or other breathing sensitivities. Try a safer mold remover, such as Concrobium Mold Control.
• Replace carpeting in basements, bathrooms and kitchens with hard surface flooring such as tile, linoleum or hardwood.
Visit the allergist if you are having increased symptoms: you may need to adjust your asthma or allergy management plan. Your doctor can test for allergies to individual pollens and molds and you could be a candidate for allergy shots. Immunotherapy has proven effective for many who suffer during fall’s allergen explosion.
First published in Allergic Living magazine.
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- Outdoor Allergies Resource Hub – a compilation of our best.
- Sneeze-free Garden – create the perfect low-allergen garden.
- Hay Fever Handbook – free e-book.
- Trees that Make You Sneeze
- Ragweed’s Rule – investigating the worst of the allergenic weeds.
- Stinging Insect Allergies – when is it a serious reaction?