A pair of towering male junipers once flanked the door to historian Dan Krieger's home office in San Luis Obispo, CA. The blue-green boughs extended 20 feet in the air--and, unbeknownst to Krieger, silently released clouds of sneeze-provoking pollen. "I felt terrible," he says. "I took lots of antihistamines while working in my office. But I never suspected those trees."
Krieger's brother-in-law, the well-known horticulturalist Thomas Ogren, did. He persuaded Krieger to replace the male junipers with yew and other low-allergy alternatives--with dramatic effect.
"I feel great now," says Krieger, a professor at California Polytechnic State University. "I don't sneeze or need antihistamines, and I'm more productive."
Ogren, who has a master's degree in agricultural science and is the author of Allergy-Free Gardening and a related book, Safe Sex in the Garden, isn't surprised. Drawing on 2 decades of research into the allergenic potential of plants, he developed an allergy ranking system--the Ogren Plant Allergy Scale (OPALS)--for more than 3,000 common trees, shrubs, flowers, and grasses.
The junipers he advised Krieger to remove ranked a scale-topping 10; the replacement yew, a sneeze-free 1. Ogren also prevailed upon Krieger to remove coyote brush (another 10) from around the house. For the first time ever, Krieger's wife, who has both allergies and asthma, was able to enjoy the yard.
First Steps toward Sneeze Reduction
A recent report by the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology estimates that as many as 36 million Americans have seasonal allergies. If you're among this tissue-clutching set, you, too, can enjoy your yard. Replacing an exceptionally allergenic shrub or tree with a non-sneeze-provoking variety, as Krieger did, can work wonders. But there are far simpler tactics to try first. Start with these:
Mow low. Trim the lawn more often to keep it short--about 2 inches--and you'll lop off the tops of those leaves of grass before they produce flowers and pollen. Note: If you have particularly bad allergies, ask someone else to mow.
Crowd out the worst offenders. Fertilize your lawn to grow thick grass that chokes out highly allergenic weeds such as nettle, annual bluegrass, and dandelion.
Pick the right time for yard work. Pollen levels are highest on warm, dry, windy days. Good times to get down and dirty among the flora: after a long, soaking rain or when the pollen index for your area is low. But wait an hour or so after a dramatic storm. "Hard rain fractures pollen grains, exposing more of the proteins that prompt allergic reactions," cautions Richard Weber, MD, a professor of medicine at National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver and a leading expert on pollen allergy.
Protect your skin. When possible, wear long sleeves and pants while gardening, cutting grass, etc. If you're allergic to the pollen that touches your skin, it can cause swelling, redness, and rashes.
Wear big shades and carry saline eyewash. If pollen comes in contact with your eyes, it can make them itch and tear.
Clean yourself up. After finishing with the flower beds and lawn, change your clothes at the door, and then shower and wash your hair to rinse away any pollen.
Experiment with meds. Try an over-the-counter antihistamine if the above measures don't do the trick. Still no relief? Ask an allergist about allergy shots. "They work for 90% of people," Weber says. The downside: Shots can be costly and time-consuming (one or two per week for up to 6 months, followed by regular maintenance injections).
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