After her retirement, a 60-year-old woman from Mumbai started gardening and became a green thumb. However, her relaxing hobby took a turn for the worse when she developed severe allergies from gardening. She was facing the wrath of a pollen allergy.
Her face and eyes were swollen and she had an intense rash on her neck, along with severe itching. When Madhu was rushed to the hospital, she was given oral anti-inflammatory medications, steroid creams and oral anti-allergic medications as the reaction could have been severe if prolonged. “Her rash and symptoms subsided in five days and faded completely after two weeks,” recalls Dr Raina Nahar, consultant dermatologist, Nanavati Max Hospital, Mumbai, who treated Madhu.
Gardening can be a sanative experience for many, but if not careful while tending the plants outdoors, it can result in severe allergic reactions during the pollen season.
What triggers allergies from gardening outdoors?
Rather than the flowers or other plants in our garden, experts point out that it’s often the pollen present in the weed that grows along with these plants that trigger pollen allergies in people. “A skin condition called phytophotodermatitis is developed when there’s contact of the skin with these weeds. Phyto means plant, photo means sunlight and dermatitis is a skin irritation. Thus, the pollen or the allergens dispersed from the plant, combined with sunlight exposure can result in this skin condition,” says Dr Nahar.
She points out that the reaction will be visible on your skin. “The irritation can be visible around the folds of your elbows, eyelids and behind the ears. Phytophotodermatitis occurs if one does gardening without wearing protective gear like gloves or a gardening apron,” Dr Nahar stresses.
Similarly, Dr Sachin Kumar, senior consultant of pulmonology and critical care medicine at Sakra World Hospital highlights that allergies from gardening can lead to respiratory conditions like rhinitis due to the pollen dispersion from weeds. “Dust in plants, fungal spores and even a drop in temperature apart from pollen can be considered as triggers,” he says. Dr Kumar also specifies that pollens from trees and grass are allergens too. “Unlike pollen present in flowers, which are heavy and cannot travel through the air, pollen present in trees and grass are lighter and can be easily picked up in the wind, causing reactions when one breaths it in,” he says.
Allergic symptoms caused by outdoor plants
Some of the skin and respiratory symptoms that experts point out
- Runny nose
- Itchy and watery eyes
Experts stress to be extremely cautious while gardening and not to be exposed to unfamiliar outdoor plants, as some allergies from gardening can be severe.
“The onset of pollen allergy symptoms usually show up within 24-72 hours. Thus it’s important to seek medical assistance immediately when facing any of these symptoms,” stresses Dr Nahar, who has seen multiple cases of gardening enthusiasts coming up with allergic tendencies.
Avoiding certain plants can be a task at times as it is difficult to ascertain the source of the allergy. Also, not everyone would be allergic to plants and there could be other allergens playing a role too, like an insect, wasps, bees or bird poop.
Allergies from gardening: Know your triggers
The American College of Asthma, Allergy & Immunology advises you to find out what you’re allergic to so that you can find out when that species is pollinated and limit your time outdoors during that brief period of time.
Experts stress that pollen from parthenium (a type of weed) and ragweed are a common trigger for pollen allergies. “This is because the pollen season is around spring and winter,” says Dr Kumar.
Here are some of the plants, trees and shrubs that are less likely to trigger allergies — apple, cacti, hibiscus, sunflower, rose and magnolia.
Diagnosis and treatments for allergies from gardening
People who are atopic and prone to developing rhinitis, asthma, wheezing and eczema must heed caution before gardening to avoid pollen allergies. “The person can undergo a skin prick test to identify the allergen,” says Dr Kumar. Depending on the severity, the person with allergies is prescribed, oral anti-inflammatory medications, steroid creams or oral anti-allergic medications. He adds that it is advised they reach out to a medical expert to get their preventive medication to avoid such reactions every time they garden or work outdoors,” he says.
- Allergies from gardening may not always be from the plants but from pollen present in the weeds that grow in the garden.
- Phytophotodermatitis, wheezing, asthma and rhinitis are the conditions that one develops due to pollen and allergens.
- Sunflower, hibiscus, rose and cacti are some plants that are least likely to cause an allergic reaction.
- Experts stress safe gardening tips like donning protective gear and taking a shower post-gardening to avoid allergies from pollen or allergens.