For those with grass allergy, a lush lawn can be the bane of summer. (This article was updated in June 2018.)
Grass allergy is one of the most common pollen allergies. In the central and northern United States and Canada, grass generally pollinates in May, June and July. Farther south, the pollen starts filling the air a couple of months earlier. If the Kleenex box is your constant companion when grass season hits, chances are, you find trouble in the turf.
As with all pollen allergies, those who react to grass suffer from allergic rhinitis, commonly known as hay fever. Typically you’ll sneeze, feel congestion and have itchy eyes and noses. The symptoms may not be as severe as they are for tree pollen allergy or ragweed allergy, because the pollen counts often aren’t as high. On the down side, grasses pollinate for a longer period of time, so you’re bound to have many uncomfortable days.
Those contending with a grass allergy also tend to have more symptoms of conjunctivitis – that is, itchy, watery eyes – than those with tree or ragweed allergy, according to Dr. Harold Kim, an assistant professor in the department of clinical immunology and allergy at McMaster University in Ontario.
“It’s also more likely that they get swelling of the tissues around the eyes,” he says.
Although symptoms are usually limited to the nose and eyes, some who are severely allergic to grass and will get hives upon contact with its pollen. In the most dangerous cases, they can experience a reaction that is close to anaphylaxis.
“I’ve seen it a couple of times,” says Dr. Donald Stark, a Vancouver allergist. “They fall and they try to get the soccer ball, or in baseball, they’re sliding through the grass. That can cause contact hives, and I’ve actually seen almost anaphylactic reactions because they get enough antigen absorbed through the scraped skin.”
If you’ve had such a reaction, Stark recommends asking your allergist to prescribe an epinephrine auto-injector.
Grass Allergy: How to Cope
Grass is hard to escape. Whether it is your neighbors’ lawn, the field where your daughter plays soccer or that empty lot with the tall blades blowing in the wind – it’s everywhere. The type of grass is hardly relevant: if you’re allergic to one kind, you’re likely allergic to every grass, as the species cross-react.
But, there are ways you can protect yourself:
• First, when indoors, keep your windows closed. Draw blinds or curtains and use fans and sometimes air conditioning to keep your home cool. If you’re protected indoors, you’re protected for much of the day.
• Avoid being the person who cuts the grass in the pollinating months of May through July. The lawn mower kicks up the pollen and sends it into your eyes and nose. If it’s only grass allergy you’re contending with, you may be fine to mow the lawn in other months.
Kim notes however, that “often patients will have allergy symptoms with fresh cut grass in August or September. That’s not grass pollen allergy, that may be mold allergy from the molds being stirred up.” As well, Stark cautions that the dust the lawn mower creates while it’s trimming can get into your nasal passages like pollen, and also cause symptoms.
• That said, it’s good to keep your lawn short, to keep pollen production to a minimum. Get someone else to do the mowing during in the early months of summer. If there isn’t anyone else to do it, take an antihistamine first, and wear a mask.
Medication Relief for Grass Allergy
Grass allergy can be managed with non-sedating antihistamines and nasal steroid sprays. You can even take antihistamines in anticipation of your allergy season, says allergist Dr. Karen Binkley. In a reaction, your body releases histamines which cause the redness, swelling, itching and mucus that lead to sneezing and other symptoms. By taking the medication early, or during the allergy season, you can block the histamine before it becomes a problem.
Nasal steroid sprays reduce inflammation and mucus production, and can be taken in combination with an antihistamine.
For some sufferers, immunotherapy, or allergy shots, may be an option. Patients get injections of their allergen over a period of months or years to make them less sensitive to the allergen. Not everyone is suited to the treatment, so consult your allergist.
In recent years, sublingual allergy tablets, a convenient form of immunotherapy for grass allergy have become available.
According to a Canadian survey by the antihistamine brand Reactine (known as Zyrtec in the U.S.), nine out of 10 allergy sufferers don’t want to cocoon themselves indoors. Who would want to?
“They should play sports. They should do any activities they want,” says Kim. “They should see their physician to be treated, if they’re having difficulty with [grass allergy]. With some very simple, safe medications, the majority of people can lead a very normal life.”