Every summer, millions of North Americans experience the greatest hits of the allergy world: pervasive pollens, unexpected bee stings, food reactions at barbecues, or garden plants that give them the itch.
But summer can also bite back in some highly unusual ways. With the help of two top allergy pros, Pennsylvania allergist Dr. Eric Schenkel and Canadian allergist Dr. Paul Keith, we’re running down seven of summer’s oddest allergies.
1. Fruit Oral Allergy
They’re some of the sweetest tastes of the season, but fruits including peaches, watermelon, oranges and berries can become a sour experience for people with oral allergy syndrome, an allergy that leads to itching and burning in the mouth, lips and throat. In a minority of people who have the syndrome, it can even lead to anaphylaxis.
So why is the immune system fretting over something so sweet? It’s because these fruits share similar protein structures with seasonal allergy triggers like grass pollen and ragweed.
Advice: For most with the condition, cooking the fruit alters the protein enough to stave off a reaction, but Schenkel warns it’s not a foolproof plan. “Cooking changes the protein structure – but you don’t always cook things all the way. For example, you might have an apple pie that isn’t completely cooked,” he says. “So you have to be careful.”
2. Thunderstorm Asthma
When the big summer thunderstorms roll in, it’s not only time to close windows and unplug major appliances: asthmatics might also need to up their meds. Studies have shown that, for several days after a thunderstorm, reports of asthma exacerbations go up.
So what’s going on? Scientists think storms smash grass pollen down into tiny pieces that are easy to inhale, and to get farther into the lungs.
Advice: “It may not be the best time to go running after a big thunderstorm that has broken up the pollen into smaller, more inhalable particles,” says Keith. (For complete information on thunderstorm asthma, see the full feature from Allergic Living magazine.)
3. Summer BBQ Alert
In summer there’s nothing like hitting the trails, but bears or big cats aren’t the only creatures you need to watch out for on a foray into the forest. University of Virginia allergist Dr. Thomas Platts-Mills has discovered that bites from a certain type of tick – Amblyomma americanum, or the Lone Star tick – can trigger a rare IgE response to a sugar found in beef, lamb and pork. This causes a reaction to these meats that doesn’t kick in for hours.
Advice: For those who’ve acquired the nasty condition, technically known as alpha-gal allergy, but dubbed “red meat allergy,” it means that tucking into that tasty steak can lead to symptoms that range from hives to full-blown anaphylaxis. To find out about when to suspect alpha gal allergy symptoms and when to test after a tick bite, see this article. Thankfully, the CDC offers tips on preventing tick bites if red meat is still on the menu.
4. Solar Hives
While most people flock to the sun in summer, others run for cover because they get solar hives (also called solar urticaria), which is a mast cell reaction to the sun’s UVA and UVB rays. (Cold or warm water can also cause a reaction called aquagenic urticaria.) As well, even the sunscreens we use to block the sun’s harmful rays can darken a sunny day. For people with allergies to sulfa drugs, PABA – a common ingredient in sunscreens – can lead to a skin reaction, as can other components.
Advice: “If you put it on and immediately get an itchy rash, then you know there’s an ingredient in there you should be avoiding,” says Keith. Learn more about the physical urticarias here.
5. Laundry Lurkers
Hanging laundry outside is great for the environment and gives clothes, bedding and towels that lovely fresh air smell. But for seasonal allergy sufferers, freshness can also pack a punch, because pollens latch onto clothes and get tracked inside, where they continue to pester. Stick with clothes and bed linens dried indoors on a rack or in the dryer, and remember to opt for hypoallergenic, fragrance-free detergents to avoid asthma and skin reactions.
Advice: When it comes to indoor air, air conditioning can be a godsend for those with asthma and allergy because it helps to keep pollen out. However, it can also dry out the air to the point where asthma is triggered more easily. “Air conditioning is a double-edged sword because it’s really cold, dry air,” says Keith, “so if you do have inflamed mucous membranes, it may bother you.”
6. Mosquito Allergy
Long, hot summer days are often the most memorable, but once the sun goes down, they’re also the most mosquito-heavy. The majority of people get a small, localized immune response to the insect’s bite – that itchy little bump – but for a small few, the mosquito’s saliva can set off systemic reactions including hives and asthma, and in rare instances, anaphylaxis.
Advice: Avoidance is the number one treatment; wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants can also keep the pests at bay, and repellants can help, but sometimes they can trigger reactions, too. “It’s rare, and I have never seen it myself, but people can go into a serious allergic reaction from mosquito bites,” says Schenkel. “Malaria is the least of their problems; it’s the allergic reaction they have to watch out for.”
7. Poison Ivy
It’s the summer itch that just won’t quit, but few people realize that the reaction to poison ivy is actually an allergic response to the plant’s oily sap, urushiol – and reports of its highly irritating ways date back thousands of years.
However, if you get sidelined by a poison ivy rash, take heart: it’s a sign your immune system is working.
Advice: “If your immune system isn’t responding to poison ivy, it may indicate a defect in your body’s defense, so it means your T-cells are functioning,” says Schenkel. “Of course that’s small consolation for somebody who gets really miserable from it.”
Got an odd summer allergy to add to the list? Write us at [email protected]