By Dr. Jeff Daniels EBS Medical Columnist
Every year about this time many Big Sky residents suffer with severe allergies. It happens like clockwork, from the last week or two of June through July.
The same people come back to the medical clinic with the same complaints—many using relatively ineffective over-the-counter medication, and all seeking a cure for their sneezing, itching and congestion.
Why does this happen annually like clockwork? Well, we can blame Mother Nature for this because the natural world is full of phenomenon that happen like clockwork, without time pieces involved.
Over millions of years, plants have developed their own internal clocks, based mainly on the amount of daylight that reach them, and they use that as a signal to release trillions of pollen grains into the air. Different groups of plants produce pollen at different times of the spring, summer and fall. As a rule, trees pollinate in the early spring, grasses in late spring, and weeds in the early fall.
We are all too familiar with the clouds of pine pollen that usually cover everything in Big Sky with a yellow dust. Each year this starts around June 20, but for some reason (global warming?) it began about two weeks earlier in 2016.
Believe it or not, this yellow pine pollen does not cause allergic symptoms. There’s something innately different in both yellow pine pollen and the pollen from the corn plant, compared to other grass, tree and weed pollens that make people miserable.
Corn and pine pollens, even if injected directly into the nose and eyes, will not induce true allergic symptoms. But here in Big Sky, the yellow pine pollen signals that within a week or two the grass pollens will arrive.
This year, the grass pollen came out en masse at its usual time, during the last week of June, although more than a few people felt symptoms earlier. Unlike the yellow pine pollen, you can’t see the grass pollen, and it doesn’t come from your lawn—lawn grass doesn’t have flowers that pollinate—but it blows in from farmland grasses, as well as from several species of wild grasses.
There are basically two types of pollinating plants: ones that use the wind to spread their pollen, and plants that use the services of insects and other animals. A plant that depends on insects or animals—like a hummingbird, for example—to spread pollen from one plant to another must have flowers to attract the insect or animal, and must have sticky pollen to stick to the legs of bumblebees so that it can be transported directly to another plant. These pollens only cause allergies if you stick the plant up your nose.
Wind-pollinating plants are aerodynamically designed to take advantage of a breeze, so the pollen-producing parts basically dangle in the wind and discharge the light, invisible pollen into the air in such vast quantities that it is very likely to reach a similar plant for reproduction.
These plants have flowering parts, but we hardly notice them, because they were not designed to attract members of the animal kingdom, including us.
So now you know why you’re sneezing. If the symptoms are driving you mad, and over-the-counter or prescription medications are not helping, the medical clinic has what some of my patients call a “miracle” cure. Try it and you won’t have symptoms again until the following year’s grass pollen season.
Dr. Jeff Daniels was the recipient of the 2016 Big Sky Chamber of Commerce Chet Huntley Lifetime Achievement Award and has been practicing medicine in Big Sky since 1994, when he and his family moved here from New York City. A unique program he implements has attracted more than 700 medical students and young doctors to train with the Medical Clinic of Big Sky.