It’s the best time of the year in the Lowcountry—temperature and humidity drop, cool breezes stream in, and the match is lit on backyard oyster roasts and fire pits. Fall in the Charleston area is a welcome and refreshing reprieve, one that sends the locals scurrying to find those packed-away sweaters and flannels, and makes outdoor activity something to be enjoyed rather than endured.
If only those with fall allergies could join in on all the fun. For many, autumn is peak allergy season—with flourishing ragweed, mold developing in damp leaf piles, and even pollen food sensitivities stemming from fall favorites like apples and pears. Symptoms like sneezing, congestion and post-nasal drainage can persist until the season’s first frost kills many of the offending allergens—but in Charleston, that doesn’t typically arrive until early December.
And conditions conducive to sparking fall allergies can arrive before fall even starts. As of early September, Charleston Allergy & Asthma’s weekly pollen count was already picking up signs of ragweed pollen. “The weed pollen here starts early, even before the cool temperatures begin,” says Dr. Carolyn Word, a board-certified allergist/immunologist at Charleston Allergy & Asthma. “Some people have misconceptions about that and think fall pollen comes when things cool off. But here in Charleston, we’re seeing it even in the heat of summer.”
Jumping in leaf piles is a traditional, fun fall activity but it can leave you feeling pretty crummy if you’re allergic to mold as mold spores grow in leaf piles. Given that most fall allergens are inhaled, some patients can even experience fits of coughing or shortness of breath. And suddenly, that Halloween hayride isn’t very enjoyable at all.
Allergy symptoms from fall foods
Even fall indoor activities can be marred for those who suffer from pollen food allergy syndrome. Eating food with proteins similar to pollen can confuse the immune system and produce allergy symptoms. Many popular fall foods like apples, pears, apricots, nuts, celery and potatoes can produce symptoms like itchiness or swelling of the mouth when eaten raw—although since high temperatures break down the offending proteins, the same food can usually be consumed without symptoms when cooked.
“Certainly, fall is a common time for apples,” Dr. Word says. “But what we’ll see is that apples are a major component for people who suffer from fall allergies related to birch tree pollen. Birch trees pollinate in the spring, but patients who are allergic to birch trees can have allergy symptoms throughout the year. When they eat fresh apples in the fall, they may end up with itching of the mouth and lips, maybe some swelling of the lips, and they’ll come in and want to get tested for an apple allergy. When really, we determine it’s the pollen triggering the symptoms.”
Even though it’s not a food allergy, Dr. Word says pollen food allergy syndrome is among the most common food allergy triggers suffered by adults. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, this type of food reaction can occur in 50 to 75 percent of adults allergic to birch tree pollen.
And pollen food allergy syndrome isn’t limited to fall foods—even summer favorites like cherries, peaches and melons can produce a reaction in those with the condition. “It’s really fascinating how this one little protein that the body recognizes as similar to pollen can trigger symptoms for a number of different foods,” Dr. Word says.
A better method of treatment
For fall allergy sufferers, the first step toward finding relief is visiting a specialist. “Being outside and enjoying the nice weather can be impossible,” Dr. Word says. “First and foremost, the most important thing is finding out if you are suffering from allergies or not. Once you have allergy testing done and find out what you’re allergic to, we can come up with a treatment plan for better long-term control.”
Over-the-counter remedies like antihistamines and nasal sprays may help to ease symptoms, but they don’t change the body’s response to the allergens themselves—ensuring that the symptoms will come back. But an approach like immunotherapy treatment, can adjust the body’s immune response to the allergen and provide decades of relief.
“That means less medication for most patients. For some patients, that means coming off medications completely,” Dr. Word says. “We have patients in the office who say, ‘Doctor, I've been doing over-the-counter stuff for years,’ or, ‘I don't want to take a pill every day for the rest of my life.’ We see a lot of patients who just don't want to do that. They want something better than that. And that’s what we’re here for.”
Are you looking for a better way of managing your fall allergies and get the most enjoyment out of the Lowcountry’s best season? Contact Charleston Allergy & Asthma at (843) 881-2030 to schedule an appointment at any of their Lowcountry locations or visit their website at CharlestonAllergy.com for further information.