The proof is in the pollen: the truth behind all-year allergy season at ASU

ASU professionals weigh in on the sources of and responses to environmental allergens in the Valley

Sneezing, coughing and sniffling create a soundboard of unseemly noises in ASU classrooms when allergy season hits campus. 

However, the mass crumpling of tissues never seems to end during seasonally dictated times, and ASU professionals have concluded that allergies can spring up anytime of the year, allergy season or not. 

According to Elizabeth Makings, a research specialist in the School of Life Sciences and director of the ASU Herbarium, allergy season can be attributed to local plant pollenating times as well as the dust and particulate matter problem in the Valley. 

“Any plant that is pollenated has the potential to be an allergen,” Makings said. “One of the most abundant things (in Arizona) is triangle leaf bursage, a small bush in the sunflower family with small male and female areas. If you live in an area with vegetation you will be around ragweed, and (triangle leaf bursage) is one of the many types.”

In addition to ragweed, other grasses and crops grown in agricultural fields can trigger allergies.

According to the UA Health Sciences Center, any plant-produced wind-borne pollen is likely to be an allergen.

Makings said a common misconception in the Valley is that palo verde pollen is a main allergen. She said this would be very unlikely as palo verde does not create much wind-borne pollen. 

“They create more of a sticky pollen and it is not wind-borne,” Makings said. “It’s probably a misconception, as far as being an allergen in terms of pollen ... I doubt it.”

However, it’s not just native desert plants that are instigating allergies. 

According to Makings, many non-native plants introduced to the desert environment as ornamentals, for example olive trees, are causing issues. 

The UA Health Sciences Center lists the trees and shrubs of olive and white mulberry, weeds such as Russian Thistle and Australian Saltbush, and grasses including Bermuda grass as non-native instigators of allergic reaction in the Southwest.

The site states that different pollen types in urban areas like Phoenix and Tucson are affected when non-native plants and trees, some being allergenic, are introduced.

However, there are other factors causing allergic responses on campus.

“People want to blame the plants, and sometimes it's true for seasonal allergies,” Makings said. “But a lot of times it's dusts that is making you react. Dust and pollen really are not that different when it comes to their architecture. Don’t always blame the plants.”

Even the built environment can be an aggravating factor.

According to the UA Health Sciences Center, urbanization has increased the amount of exposure to pollution, which increases the amount of people affected by allergies and asthma. 

Particulate matter is a big problem here,” Makings said. “Our air quality is terrible and it’s not flashing news it's been that way for a long time. We are so dry, we don’t get any rain, people are building and we disturb soil, as well as the burning rubber from driving cars. I don't even know how you would tell them apart unless you went to an allergist and got tested”

According to Joseph Blattman, an associate professor in the School of Life Sciences and a principal investigator within the Biodesign Center for Immunology, Vaccines and Virotherapy, allergies are the result of antibody responses to things that the immune system doesn't want to make antibody responses to.

“There are four types of allergens, immunologically speaking,” Blattman said. “Type one is relating to allergy season, type two is being allergic to a drug like penicillin, type three is immune-complex (and) type four is allergies to things like poison oak.”

Seasonal plant and dust allergic response falls under a type one immune response.

“What happens is you make antibody responses, IgE, to something you breathe in,” Blattman said. “This IgE gets stuck to mast cells in your lungs and every time you breathe that same particulate in, mast cells degranulate and you get congestion and all the side effects of allergic response.”

According to Blattman, there may not be a lot that can be done to prevent allergic responses because allergies are caused by genetic predispositions in addition to environmental effects. 

“There are genetic factors, some people are more predisposed to allergies, but allergies need to be environmentally exposed," Blattman said. “If you have bad allergies here, move somewhere else and they’ll be gone.”

For students, moving is currently not an option, so for now, they will stick to the drugstore armory of Zyrtec and Claritin.

Lilly Thurlow, a junior studying medical studies, is an emergency medical technician supervisor and student worker at Health Services.

She said students come into Health Services complaining about allergies all-year long, but especially after big allergy events.

"(More students come in) after particular dust storms or drastic weather changes," Thurlow said. "Especially in the spring when all of the plants on campus are in bloom."

At ASU Health Services, allergy sufferers can seek relief in the form of allergy shots, administered if the student has a predetermined allergy.


Reach the reporter at mshrikan@asu.edu and follow @MayaShrikant on Twitter. 

Like The State Press on Facebook and follow @statepress on Twitter.


Get the best of State Press delivered straight to your inbox.