It might seem like winter is never going to end (hello, polar vortex!), spring will soon be here — bringing with it seasonal allergies. For some people, the warmer weather brings more than just the opportunity to finally get outside and enjoy barbecues and outdoor activities. To them, spring and summer means itchy eyes, stuffy noses, sleepless nights and a whole lot of misery. That misery usually peaks once ragweed season begins. The invasive weed wreaks havoc on respiratory systems, causing sneezing, congestion, watery eyes and plenty of discomfort. It’s enough to make some people wish for the colder weather, if for no other reason than to kill the plants and end the suffering. Many people suffer through ragweed season with tissues or visit a doctor for a prescription antihistamine to help them get through the weeks when ragweed is at its worst. Starting soon, though, those of us with this type of pollen allergy may have a new choice in treatment, which will block the allergens from ragweed.
What Is Ragweed?
As the name implies, ragweed is a weed that grows primarily in rural and suburban areas of the Eastern and Midwestern U.S., although at least one of the 50 different species of the plants has been found in all 50 states. The plants can be a few inches or several feet tall; depending on the species, it may or may not have small flowers. Regardless of the species, all ragweed plants have one thing in common: They release a massive amount of pollen. The average ragweed plant releases up to a billion pollen spores over the course of ragweed season, with the most spores released from early August until October. The spores are small and light, meaning that they travel through the air with even the slightest of breezes and are . In fact, the spores are so small that even wearing protective masks can’t keep the spores from entering the nasal passages. Despite the ubiquity of ragweed pollen and the fact it’s harmless, in some people the body attacks it as if it were harmful, creating an allergic reaction. When the pollen gets into the nasal passages, the immune system reacts by creating histamine to attack the foreign substances; it’s this histamine that creates the most uncomfortable allergy symptoms, including sneezing, stuffy nose and sniffles. Those who have a more severe allergy experience red, itchy or watery eyes, itchy throat and even hives — and the reaction can cause sinus infections or asthma complications. Overall, ragweed makes life uncomfortable for anyone who is allergic to it — more than 30 million people, according to the FDA.
Ragwitek: A New Hope?
In January 2014, an FDA panel examined the data from tests of an experimental prescription medication to specifically treat the symptoms of ragweed allergies. Taking the new drug, Ragwitek, daily starting at least three months before ragweed appears helps you develop immunity to the plant’s pollen. In clinical trials, the drug was shown to be effective at reducing allergy symptoms and improving quality of life for patients. In the FDA examination, the panel voted in favor of recommending the drug be approved for sale, meaning that relief for allergy sufferers might not be far away. Ragwitek follows on the heels of another pollen-specific allergy medication, Grastek. Grastek was approved for development by the FDA in December 2013; it combats the pollen from various types of grass. It may be several years before these drugs actually hit the market, so in the meantime allergy sufferers can continue to buy Nasonex or antihistamines to control their allergic reactions.
Not a Panacea
While the idea of a drug that will help you survive ragweed season without losing sleep or taking out stock in a tissue company may be appealing, not all health care providers are convinced drugs like Ragwitek and Grastek are the future of allergy treatments. Because many of us who suffer from ragweed allergies also suffer from other plant-based allergies, blocking one type of allergen won’t relieve all symptoms. That being said, a treatment like Ragwitek has some advantages over the current immunotherapy treatments for allergies — primarily that it is taken in pill form rather than via injections. Those who suffer from severe allergies often need to have weekly injections to keep their condition under control. For many of them, a daily pill would bring welcome relief from the pain and inconvenience of those regular doctor visits. But again, since most of the pill-based treatments only target a single allergen, switching from an injection to a pill may require taking multiple pills or changing treatments throughout the year based on the predominant allergen in the environment.
Finding Relief in the Meantime
Until new treatments for allergies are approved — or we can figure out a way to eliminate allergens altogether — if you’re allergic to ragweed, there are a few ways to control your reactions. Speak to your doctor about prescription antihistamines; you can buy from an online pharmacy to save time and money. Pay attention to the pollen counts in your area, and stay inside in air-conditioned environments when they are high. Stay on top of the landscaping around your home and eliminate ragweed plants as soon as they appear. While there is little we can do about pollen in the air, we can make living with allergies a little less uncomfortable.