Pollen 101: What It Is and Why It Makes You Sneeze

young boy outside in a field of grass sneezing

Spring is rough for a lot of us. I just travelled from the seaside, where the ocean breeze and the summer fog keep the pollen to a standstill, back home to Boulder, Colorado, where the trees are blooming like crazy, the wind carries the bright white fuzzballs everywhere, and the lack of humidity means if you have allergies, you’re in the barrel now for sneezing, watery eyes, and a generally miserable experience.

So, what causes all this nonsense? Well, like many things, it’s not only human nature but the world’s nature. Specifically, there are something between 20 and 40 million Americans alone who are prone to allergies caused by pollen. There’s a bunch of biological reactions going on here, but the two most common are allergic rhinitis — that’s the condition that causes all your frequent sneezing, congestion, stuffiness and whatnot, not to mention an itchy or runny nose — but also the super-boring allergic reaction to the fine powder that contains pollen known as hay fever.

Let’s dig in. Here’s Pollen 101.

What is Pollen Anyway?

Okay, let’s science a little bit. Pollen is the male fertilizing agent of flowering plants, trees, grasses and weeds. (That’s it: sex ed is over with for today). It’s also one of the world’s most prolific allergens that causes people to have the aforementioned miserable symptoms.

What About the Weather?

The weather is a big deal as far as pollen goes, because wind and humidity affect pollen counts. See, pollen puffs that you see during your more miserable times of the year, whether they’re those weird white puffballs that come from trees or the nearly invisible particles that come from ragweed, are easily spread by wind. But there’s a catch when it comes to your geographic location. If you live in someplace that is hot, dry and windy — let’s say Hutchinson, Kansas or Austin, Texas — and you have an allergy to your local pollen, you’re kind of out of luck. Pollen is small, light and dry and can live for a long time in those conditions: trust me, I know.

However, if you live in someplace like Portland, Oregon or Monterey, California whether it either rains all the time or the ocean fog coats the whole city in mist, you might feel a little better, because allergy symptoms among sufferers are pretty minimal on days that are rainy, cloudy or windless.

What to Look Out For

Pollen is a bit of a weird phenomenon when it comes to plants. For example, my grandmother had the same allergies I have, but she grew these amazing rose bushes. As it turns out, pollen from really bright flowers like roses don’t trigger allergies. Here’s the science bit: the pollen from big, bright plants like flowers have fat, waxy pollen that are carried from plant to plant by bees and other insects. Weird, right? But trees, grasses and low-growing weeds like ragweed are designed by nature to blow by wind to spread and disseminate. So, people in the Midwest, where ragweed grows along the highway like the weed that it is, are generally miserable during its growing season.

Why Am I Miserable?

The most common miserable symptom from pollen is called rhinitis.  Allergic rhinitis is caused by allergens like pollen, but can also be triggered by other odd causes like mold or animals. It’s a chain reaction that starts in the immune system, basically. If you’re allergic, your immune system thinks pollen is a foreign object, and so it overreacts by producing antibodies called Immunoglobin E (IgE).

What Can I Do About It?

Hey, we wrote about this! You can check out this blog post to find out how to get pollen off your house and out of your home. You can also check out the free pollen count service at Pollen.com to see how things are going in your area, and use basic strategies like nasal irrigation, over-the-counter medicines, prescription meds, and, as a last measure allergy shots, to combat the yucky symptoms that come from pollen allergies.