It’s all yellow

Pollen season drenches cars, homes and more in the area

BY ZACHARY HORNER, News + Record Staff
Posted 4/12/19

Singing about stars, the band Coldplay famously remarked, “They were all yellow.”

They could have been describing cars and sidewalks in Chatham County this spring.

Yes, it’s pollen …

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It’s all yellow

Pollen season drenches cars, homes and more in the area

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Posted

Singing about stars, the band Coldplay famously remarked, “They were all yellow.”

They could have been describing cars and sidewalks in Chatham County this spring.

Yes, it’s pollen season, and it’s hit the area hard. According to the April 4 pollen report from the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, the Raleigh area is seeing 3,405 pollen grains from trees, putting it in the highest possible category.

So what is pollen? Where does it come from? How does it get everywhere? We spoke to experts on these questions and more.

What is pollen?

Matt Jones, an agent with the Chatham County Cooperative Extension, said pollen grains are “tiny, male plants that contain sperm used for sexual reproduction.” These grains are produced by trees and plants to reproduce.

“With the evolution of pollen, plants could disperse their genes over a far larger area and more precisely without the need of a film of water,” Jones said.

Debbie Roos, another Extension agent, added that “fertilization occurs when pollen is transferred from the anther [the male part of a plant] to the stigma, the female part of the plant.”

Pollen is usually located in male cones on lower branches of pine trees in particular, according to Liza Guzmán Ramirez, a biology instructor at Central Carolina Community College. Female cones, which receive the pollen, usually rest on the upper branches of trees.

“The male and female cones widen their opening to allow release and entrance of the pollen,” she said. “By having the male cones placed on lower branches than the female cones, the trees avoid self-reproducing when pollen exits the male cone.”

How does it get everywhere?

Pollen travels to different plants in different ways. Many plants, Jones said, release pollen to the wind through a process called “anemophily.” Some grasses have specialized flowers that release and intercept pollen through the air.

There are some plants, however, that transport pollen through animals. Jones said some animals will be attracted to certain flowers, “often in exchange for nectar or extra pollen.” For example, insects will eat pollen because the grains are sources of protein.

“As animals move from flower to flower, some pollen is incidentally transferred from the animal to the stigma of another flower to complete fertilization,” Jones said.

But most of what you’re seeing on the ground and in the air now is pollen released by anemophily, just floating through the air. According to Roos, just 10 percent of plants produce pollen that travels through the wind. The pollen that travels via animals is larger, heavier and sticky.

Is it good for anything, besides causing allergies?

Yes, it is, actually. As stated, it’s how plants reproduce and grow new. It also serves as a food source for insects and bees.

Roos said dogs, cats and horses can develop pollen allergies, but not as common as in humans.

But the most common affect on humans is the allergic reaction. Dr. Uma Darji, a family medicine doctor at Community Family Medicine in Pittsboro, said pollen can inflame sinus passages, causing ear aches, sneezing and more. It can also lead to worsening of lung conditions.

Jones said most of what is on the ground and in the air right now is pine pollen, which usually produces less allergy problems than oak or birch pollen.

“Pine pollen is usually larger and less likely to get into our nasal passages,” he said, “and it doesn’t seem to have the type of immune reactivity that other tree pollen — or later in the season, grass pollen — has.”

Guzmán Ramirez said the particles’ small size leads to its prolific effect on humans.

“Because the pollen is so small, it can easily enter into our houses through our ventilation systems, open doors and windows, cracks or gaps,” she said. “We also get it in our cars, on our clothing, hair, etc., which is a great way for the pine trees to further spread their genes.”

Is there something about this area that makes pollen so plentiful?

Yes. Jones said the amount of pine, oak and birch trees in the area make pollen more normal. Roos said the southern part of the country’s “longer growing season means pollen is around for a longer period of time.”

“Warmer than usual winters means plants flower and produce pollen earlier, and fluctuating and erratic temperatures in the spring can intensify pollen release during warm spells,” Roos said. “Dry, windy weather exacerbates pollen release. Lots of rainfall in the spring can cause rapid plant growth and raise pollen counts, but rain can also provide relief by temporarily cleansing the air.”

That leads to an increase in people seeing the doctor. Dr. Darji said her office will see more people with allergy problems and related symptoms from March into as late as August.

“Even though it’s not an infectious problem, people are certainly having more issues with it,” Dr. Darji said. “It’s something that a lot of people probably suffer from and never think about going to see (a doctor). But it’s definitely prevalent in this area.”

How do I deal with the allergies?

Dr. Darji recommended seeing a doctor to discuss a medication regimen if symptoms are bad.

“Some people that have never had reactions before can get reactions to pollen,” she said. “If they start to get it out of nowhere, then they should certainly see their doctor to get on a regimen to help prevent the symptoms.”

There are also some good home remedies suggested. Dr. Darji said humidifiers in the bedroom can help clean the air and keep sinus passages open, while hot showers, NetiPots and saline sprays can help clear congestion caused by allergies.

Staying inside would almost completely eliminate the exposure to pollen, she said, but that’s not always realistic.

“You can’t live in a bubble,” Dr. Darji said. “It’s a matter of dealing with your symptoms.”

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