The real bummer about ragweed and other irritants associated with allergic rhinitis is that it's almost impossible to avoid coming into contact with pollen altogether. We often can't see it or feel it, but our immune system lets us know it's hovering about by activating its defences resulting in pesky and annoying allergy symptoms.
But having a pollen allergy doesn't necessarily mean that you have to put up with a runny nose or irritated eyes all spring, summer, or fall long — there are steps you can take to reduce these symptoms if you're allergic to ragweed.
So, without further ado, here's what you need to know about ragweed allergies so you can get on with symptom-free life!
What is ragweed?
Ragweed is an unpleasant little plant.
There are over 17 different species of these soft-stemmed weeds that take up residence across North America, including sage, burweed marsh, rabbitbrush, and groundsel bush. They particularly enjoy the view from large open spaces, soaking in substantial sunlight, and favour the friendly nature of rural communities (but they're not too picky).
They often move in as early as late summer and stay until October, though, if it's a particularly mild winter they could stay right until spring. And they are particularly resistant to herbicides, which means that even if they're spotted they can be hard to get rid of.
A single ragweed plant can produce more than 1-billion individual grains of pollen in a season, and assuming they get caught in a breeze, they can travel hundreds of kilometres from their original spot. A single ragweed pollen piece can go on to fertilize other ragweed plants, and irritate those with seasonal allergies commonly referred to as "hay fever" — an allergy to pollen that comes in contact with your eyes, mouth, nose, or throat. Pollen counts are usually at their highest during the day when the temperature is at its warmest.
Ragweed is a problem all over Canada but is particularly prevalent in the cultivated fields and along the roadsides found in Quebec and southern Ontario. In fact, the only places in Canada where ragweed isn't a big problem can be found in the north, like Yellowknife, though other allergens can be found there.
What is a ragweed allergy?
Ragweed allergies are considered to be part of seasonal allergic rhinitis, commonly known as "hay fever." Much like other pollen allergies that fall under this banner, your body reacts poorly when the ragweed plant's pollen enters your immune system through your nose, ears, or mouth.
While most pollen allergies are triggered in the springtime, those with a particular sensitivity to ragweed need to be vigilant not only in the spring, but during the late summer into fall when ragweed pollen is particularly prevalent.
Ragweed allergy symptoms
Symptoms of ragweed allergy are close to other pollen allergies, and are seen during seasons when there is a lot of pollen buzzing around in the air. An allergic reaction to ragweed can produce one or more of the following symptoms:
An allergy to ragweed can also aggravate asthma symptoms, and affect your sleep quality.
How is a ragweed allergy diagnosed?
Ragweed allergies are very common. An estimated 20 to 25% of Canadians have allergic rhinitis or hay fever — which is where your ragweed allergy fits in.
If you’re experiencing allergy-related symptoms or feel like you might have a ragweed allergy, it’s important to seek medical advice. While many allergic reactions have a small impact on your life — like a runny nose, which is irritating but usually not disruptive — they can irritate other conditions, like asthma.
A ragweed allergy can often be diagnosed by your family doctor, but they might send you to an allergy specialist. An allergist can conduct a skin test to confirm whether or not your problem is ragweed or something else entirely.
They apply a diluted form of the allergen to an area of your skin and wait approximately 15 minutes to see if there's a reaction — they're looking for something like raised, red, itchy bumps.
Once an allergy has been identified, your allergist or family doctor can then prescribe a treatment that will help reduce irritating symptoms.
Treatment for ragweed allergies
We’re not at a point in medical science (yet) that ragweed allergies can actually be cured, so the focus of treatment is to reduce the symptoms.
When you come in contact with ragweed particles and you have a pollen allergy, those irritants are treated as a threat. As a result, your immune system triggers symptoms — like a runny nose or watery eyes — to help fight off the invaders. But a runny nose, sneezy afternoon, or watery eyes can be a real mood killer, so luckily there are treatments available.
In many cases, you'll likely be treated with an antihistamine or allergy medication to reduce your allergy symptoms, examples include medications like Allegra or Benadryl. While you'll need to check with your doctor or allergist, some recommend taking the allergy medication two weeks before you expect your symptoms to be at their worst (before pollen season really kicks in).
If you're severely allergic to ragweed and your symptoms are bad, you might be prescribed allergy shots, which are meant to help build your resistance to allergens. In other cases, you could be asked to take dissolving tablets that often need to start 12 weeks before pollen season kicks in. All medications have risk of side effects, so be sure to talk to your healthcare practitioner.
Managing your allergy
While receiving treatment for your ragweed allergy should help reduce your discomfort, there are other steps you can take that might help lessen the occurrence of allergic reactions (and the annoying symptoms that result).
The focus of these steps is to reduce your contact with ragweed (and other types of pollen) as much as possible, especially when they’re more prevalent outside.
A few helpful tips on how to avoid ragweed pollen, thus possibly reducing your symptoms include:
Where possible, eliminate ragweed plants in your immediate surroundings before pollen season hits
Wear glasses (or sunglasses) to reduce the possible contact of pollen with your eyes
Wear a dust mask while mowing the lawn or gardening to avoid contact with your mouth and nose
Keep outdoor activity to times when there are reduced pollen counts such as during the evening or after heavy rainfall, avoid 10 am to 3 pm, where possible
Avoid particularly dry or windy days
Don't hang your clothes to dry outdoors
Shower and change your clothes when you come indoors, especially if you believe you’ve been in contact with lots of pollen
Keep windows closed and opt for fans or air conditioning as a cooling method
Higher than average pollen levels have been seen in some Canadian cities in 2021 (double that of the previous year in Toronto), so it could also be worth it to monitor the pollen levels and limit your outdoor time on days where ragweed pollen is more prevalent — you can do this through The Weather Network.
Dealing with seasonal allergies
Seasonal allergies suck, no one denies that. And, unfortunately, this article can't diagnose your allergies, just like it can't cure your symptoms if you come in contact with ragweed pollen. How that happens is between you and your doctor.
But understanding when a ragweed pollen allergy most often strikes, and the steps you can take to reduce irritating symptoms (like visit your friendly neighbourhood doctor) are a great way to move towards living a happier and healthier life.