Pollen is good for bees, but not so good for humans. Sneezing, in particular, can really pack a punch. (For Spectrum Health Beat)
Pollen is good for bees, but not so good for humans. Sneezing, in particular, can really pack a punch. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

They can travel 130 miles per hour, packing enough force to break blood vessels, and shooting as many as 100,000 germs up to 30 feet away.

No, these aren’t sledgehammers of slime; they’re the common, everyday, ordinary sneezes, brought on this time of year by some sinister seasonal allergies.

But while warmer weather brings with it a powder keg of pollen and an all-star lineup of other allergy instigators, there are ways to fight back from a firestorm of seasonal sneezing, says one local expert.

“I had a patient yesterday that said, ‘I sneezed 300 times in a row,’” said Karyn Gell, MD, of Grand Rapids Allergy. “They get these sneezing fits, from everything in the air right now. But that’s the problem with allergies, it’s always more than one thing.”

Springtime is an especially potent pollen season, creating a smorgasbord of seasonal issues, Dr. Gell explained.

“All the trees have all this pollen right now—that droopy thing hanging down is the reproductive part, and pollen released from the male portion is released floating to the female receptacle,” she said. “Pollen is basically sperm, and if it lands in your eye or your nose and you are allergic to it, your body reacts and tries to fight it.”


Don’t stifle that sneeze!

An expert gives the skinny on safer sneezing.

If you think you can’t hurt yourself sneezing, think again, said Christopher Barnes, DO, a family medicine physician with Spectrum Health Medical Group.

“I’ve had a couple patients come in with sub-conjunctival hemorrhages—that means bleeding below the surface of the eye. If you create enough force in your head from the sneeze, that pressure can burst a capillary. It doesn’t happen too often, but it does happen.”

The potential damages don’t stop there, Dr. Barnes explained.

“It’s possible to have a nosebleed, putting some back pressure on the ear, and developing an eardrum injury, because the nose and the ears are somewhat connected.

“It’s even possible to hurt your back, depending on what position you’re in.”

The answer is to stay on the safe side when sneezing, he said.

“It’s worse to hold it in,” he said. “It’s a natural process, and you’ve got to not try and resist it too much—but be polite to those around you. Cover your nose and mouth, sneeze into your nose and elbow.”

Here are Dr. Gell’s four keys to fighting seasonal sneezing:

  1. Allergy avoidance. “Keep your windows in your car and your home closed,” Dr. Gell said. “However, you’re going to want to go outside, so if you’re doing a big job like mowing the grass, wear a mask and perhaps glasses or goggles.”
  1. Medications. “Wonderfully, they’ve all gone over the counter, so you don’t need to see a provider or get a prescription anymore,” she said. “There are several over-the-counter: Allegra, Claritin, Zyrtec and Benadryl. Or generics are just fine, too. That’s the antihistamines. Decongestants, now those can help beautifully to decongest, all that mucus and plugging. They are behind the counter for safety as side effects may occur. And then we have eye drops, like Zaditor. You don’t want the ones that say ‘Get the red out,’ it’s addictive, and you don’t want to use that for four to six weeks of allergy season. If you drop decongestants in the eye, or spray it in the nose, it’s addictive. That’s the caution on anything decongestant.”
  1. Irrigation. Dr. Gell says products like SinuNeb and others can help clean you out by flushing your sinuses.
  1. Prescriptions. “When your symptoms require medication you would like to avoid , or begin adding up to 30 percent of days a year, we can identify exactly what you’re allergic to, how to avoid it, and how to treat it,” Dr. Gell said. “Prescription therapy is associated with an 80 percent success rate for your allergies.”

One strategy Dr. Gell says won’t work, is waiting for allergy season to end.

“Each person’s immune system is so unique, and often with allergies there are multiple,” she said. “Early spring allergens come from mostly trees, but still to come: grasses. The weird thing with trees is, we have so many species in our area, like the birch, which pollinates early, then you go into the middle pollinators, like the maple, and then the late pollinators, like oak.

“When rain hits, you’ll have mold, which is present whenever there is no blanket of snow on the ground, and peaks summer through fall.  Pretty soon, the weeds come! And all season we have dust mite and animal dander.

“That’s the nice thing about finding out what you’re allergic to, the more you learn, the more you can make good choices about what you do.”