Late summer elevates ragweed pollen levels in the air and affects nearly 50 million people in the United States alone(1). Beginning around August and commonly peaking by mid-September, symptoms of ragweed allergy sufferers can range from mild to severe. In some cases, ragweed pollen may also contribute to the triggering of other negative health conditions. This makes it vital to identify your ragweed allergy and work with your doctor or allergist for a solution.
What is ragweed? What are typical ragweed allergy symptoms that may indicate your sensitivity to this common seasonal allergen? Today, we’re answering these questions and taking a look at other conditions that may stem from ragweed allergies.
What Is Ragweed?
Ragweed is a group of 17 flowering plants belonging to the aster family. It’s native to North America and is considered one of the most prominent allergenic plants. Ragweed is known to produce billions of lightweight pollen, making it a major contributor to seasonal allergies, particularly during late summer and early fall.
Some characteristics of ragweed plants include:
- Appearance: Ragweed plants typically grow as tall stems with leaves that look like fern fronds. They can grow up to five feet or more.
- Flowering: Ragweed produces small, inconspicuous flowers that are green or yellowish in color. The flowers are arranged in spikes or clusters at the top of the stem.
- Pollen production: What sets ragweed apart as a common seasonal allergen is its prolific pollen production. Each ragweed plant can produce billions of tiny pollen grains, which are released into the air. These pollen grains are extremely small and lightweight, allowing them to be carried by the wind over long distances.
- Habitat: Ragweed is hardy and thrives in disturbed areas like roadsides, fields, and gardens. It’s well-adapted to a wide range of soil types and environmental conditions which helps account for its prevalence. One study showed that ragweed pollen could even be up to seven times higher in an urban city environment(2) due to the temperature phenomenon known as “urban heat island(3).”
Even a small amount of exposure to ragweed pollen can trigger an allergic reaction if you’re sensitive to it, and ragweed can travel 50-100 miles in the air.. Identifying your sensitivity to this pollen and knowing how to prepare for it annually is vital to managing your ragweed allergy symptoms.
Common Ragweed Allergy Symptoms
How do you know if you are experiencing symptoms of ragweed allergy? The most effective method is seeing an allergist for a skin test, or taking an accurate blood allergy test either at a laboratory like Quest or Labcorp or an allergy home test analyzed by a CLIA-certified lab to determine your sensitivity. As one of the most prolific causes of fall allergies, typical ragweed allergy symptoms can vary in severity from person to person.
The most common ragweed allergy symptoms include:
- Sneezing: Sneezing is one of the most common symptoms of ragweed allergy sufferers. When ragweed pollen is inhaled, it irritates the nasal passages which triggers your body’s reflex to sneeze.
- Runny or stuffy nose: Ragweed pollen can inflame your nasal passages, causing the blood vessels in the nasal lining to become congested and leaky. This can make breathing through your nose challenging when experiencing ragweed allergy symptoms.
- Itchy or watery eyes: Itchy or watery eyes are telltale symptoms of ragweed allergy. This happens because the immune system responds to the allergen by releasing histamines, which can cause the eyes' sensitive mast cells to become irritated and watery.
- Itchy throat: Having an itchy throat is common if you’re experiencing ragweed allergy symptoms. Your throat itching is often the result of postnasal drip, where excess mucus flows down the back of the throat, causing irritation.
- Coughing: Ragweed allergy can lead to coughing, particularly as postnasal drip accumulates in the throat and triggers the urge to clear it. This cough may be non-productive, meaning it doesn't produce mucus.
- Disrupted sleep: Can allergies make you tired? Yes, they can. Poorly managed ragweed allergies can lead to disrupted sleep that leaves you feeling drained. Additionally, persistent sneezing and coughing can further disturb sleep patterns. Fortunately, there are ways to fix allergy fatigue and increase your energy.
- Difficulty concentrating: The combination of physical symptoms, fatigue, and general discomfort can make it difficult to concentrate or focus on tasks, commonly referred to as brain fog from allergies.
Managing ragweed allergies frequently includes allergen avoidance, over-the-counter or prescription antihistamines, or nasal corticosteroids to alleviate symptoms quickly. For severe or persistent seasonal ragweed allergy symptoms, allergy immunotherapy options like allergy shots or sublingual allergen drops may be recommended to desensitize your immune system to ragweed pollen over time. Consult an allergist for a proper diagnosis and a personalized treatment plan.
Additional Possible Side Effects of Ragweed Allergies
It's important to mention that ragweed allergies can exacerbate other conditions, such as asthma sinusitis, or ear infections. It may also be a catalyst for Pollen Food Allergy Syndrome (PFAS).
- Asthma: Ragweed pollen may worsen your asthma symptoms. Allergic reactions can trigger asthma attacks, leading to wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness.
- Sinusitis: Chronic sinusitis, characterized by inflammation and infection of the sinuses, can be aggravated by ragweed allergies due to increased nasal congestion. It’s important to note allergies cannot cause fever (https://www.mynectar.com/learn/can-allergies-cause-fever), but conditions like sinusitis that develop may do so.
- Ear infections: Children with ragweed allergies may be at a higher risk of developing ear infections, as nasal congestion and postnasal drip can create an environment for bacterial growth in the ears.
Pollen Food Allergy Syndrome (PFAS)
Pollen food allergy syndrome, also known as oral allergy syndrome, is a phenomenon that affects some individuals with ragweed allergies. PFAS occurs when the immune system mistakes proteins in certain fruits, vegetables, and nuts for ragweed pollen(4). As a result, consuming these foods triggers allergic symptoms, primarily in the mouth and throat.
Common symptoms of PFAS include:
- Itchy or tingling mouth, lips, or throat
- Swelling of the lips, tongue, or throat
- Mild hives or itching around the mouth
- Gastrointestinal symptoms (rare)
Common trigger foods include bananas, melons, cucumbers, and zucchini, among others. Cooking or processing these foods often breaks down the allergenic proteins, reducing the risk of a reaction.
Ragweed allergy symptoms can include sneezing, nasal congestion, itchy eyes, and more. These allergies can also worsen conditions like asthma, sinusitis, and ear infections if left unmanaged. If you have a ragweed allergy, consult with an allergist for management strategies, which may include allergen avoidance, medications, or allergy immunotherapy to reduce sensitivity over time.
- Ziska, L. H., Gebhard, D. E., Frenz, D. A., Faulkner, S., Singer, B. D., & Straka, J. G. (2003). Cities as harbingers of climate change: Common ragweed, urbanization, and public health. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 111(2), 290–295. https://doi.org/10.1067/mai.2003.53
- Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, (2023). 2023 Allergy Capitals. Retrieved from allergycapitals.com.
They say knowledge is power. We couldn’t agree more. Learn about the chronic health condition that affects 50 million Americans every year.