Photos: Micropollen: The beauty behind your allergy misery

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  1. Willow pollen

    This stunning up-close view of willow pollen was captured by Swiss photographer Martin Oeggerli using modern scanning-electron microscope (SEM) technology and colorization techniques.

    Despite its allure under the microsope, willow tree pollen is a common early-spring allergen, triggering sniffles, itchy eyes and misery in many parts of the world.

    Here, a grain of willow pollen has wedged between flower petals.

    Click for more beautiful reasons to sneeze. (Martin Oeggerli / ZUMA Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Alder pollen

    Alder pollen is a common windborne allergen in wooded areas of North America. The pollen can be found miles away from their source.

    In some cases, people who are allergic to alder pollen can develop oral allergy symptoms when they eat certain fruits and vegetables. You may have this if you've noticed symptoms such as itchiness, swelling or redness after you've eaten a peach, apple, plum, celery or carrots.

    (Martin Oeggerli / ZUMA Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Silver leaf oak pollen

    Pollen from a silverleaf tree has a sticky coating that bonds them to animal passersby. (Martin Oeggerli / ZUMA Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Pine pollen

    Ever find your car coated with yellow particles during the spring? That's pine pollen, seen here -- a common allergen. (Martin Oeggerli / ZUMA Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Forget-me-not pollen

    Grains of forget-me-not pollen are among the tiniest known, each are just five one-thousands of a millimeter in diameter.

    Forget-me-nots are considered a fairly allergy-free flower. (Martin Oeggerli / ZUMA Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. White clover pollen

    No, that's not a French roll. It's the protein-rich pollen from white clover. These grains are an important food for bees, but they are a mild allergen all year long for many people. (Martin Oeggerli / ZUMA Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Silk tree pollen

    Pollen from an Albizia, also known as the silk tree, have triggered some allergies in the southern United States, but it's not considered a major culprit. (Martin Oeggerli / ZUMA Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Acanthus pollen

    Acanthus pollen is not a major allergy trigger, so the ornamental plant is often recommended for the gardens of allergy sufferers. (Martin Oeggerli / ZUMA Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Geranium pollen

    Dozens of grains of pollen have reached their destination: a geranium flower's stigma. (Martin Oeggerli / ZUMA Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Snowball plant pollen

    The gray granules are pollen from the snowball plant. One of them has begun growing a reproductive tube. The yellow grains are pollen from another species of plant that have missed their mark.

    Viburnum tinus, known as the snowball plant, is a good planting choice for many as it causes few allergy problems. (Martin Oeggerli / ZUMA Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Quince pollen

    Pollen from a Chaenomeles, or flowering quince, lands on a target bloom. (Martin Oeggerli / ZUMA Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Pistia pollen

    Pollen from Pistia, also know as water cabbage or water lettuce. (Martin Oeggerli / ZUMA Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Venus flytrap pollen

    The pink-flecked pollen granules from a Venus flytrap. (Martin Oeggerli / ZUMA Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Behind the images

    Unlike pictures captured with a camera, SEM scans are based on particle emission rather than light -- they don’t show colors and patterns.

    By adding layers of color and shadows, Swiss photographer Martin Oeggerli, whose work has appeared in National Geographic, literally "paints the light" in these images.

    “Certainly, most of my works are inspired by science. But to be finally enjoyed as 3D-realistic artworks of the invisible, the originally black and white electron microscopy scans have to be painted with color,” he says.

    In this illustration of the process, the original SEM image of a wasp eye is shown at bottom right. Oeggerli's colorful processing is shown at top left.

    Read more about these images from the photographer. (Martin Oeggerli / Back to slideshow navigation
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updated 4/29/2010 8:57:15 AM ET 2010-04-29T12:57:15

Think allergies end in April or May? Guess again.

Those sneezy, itchy-eyed, congested months can last well into late fall, as different trees, then grasses and, finally, weeds bombard the air with pollen. If that weren't irritating enough, outdoor mold starts to release airborne spores starting in summer and continuing through fall, which can cause further irritation. In fact, reactions to mold (fungi that thrive in warm, moist, humid climates both outdoors and in) as well as ragweed may be even more of a problem in certain parts of the country this summer because of heavier-than-usual rainfall.

If you're sneezing like crazy, here's how to stay outside, active, and virtually symptom free — all allergy season long.

1. Rethink your exercise plan.
You breathe harder and suck in more air when you're exercising than when you're, say, watching TV.

The more air you inhale, the more airborne pollen and mold spores you suck in too. That's why it's important to take your workout indoors when your allergies are acting up or on days with very high pollen or mold counts.

Love walking or running outside? You don't have to give it up entirely, but try to minimize your exposure. To help ease symptoms, take a nondrowsy antihistamine before you exercise or plan to spend significant time outdoors. Pick a path that's less likely to expose you to allergens—walk on a school track, for example, instead of through your tree-lined neighborhood. And steer clear of major roads and highways. Chemical irritants from exhaust can worsen allergy symptoms, says Malcolm N. Blumenthal, MD, director of the Asthma and Allergy Program at the University of Minnesota Medical School in Minneapolis.

2. Watch for nonseasonal allergies.
The more allergens you're exposed to at a given time, the higher your allergenic load and the worse your symptoms.

If you're allergic to cats and dust mites in addition to pollen and mold, for example, visiting a cat-owning friend on a summer evening can make that load virtually unbearable.

Here are some tips to help you limit your exposure to these top offenders:

  • Dust mites. Cover flooring with washable throw rugs instead of carpets, which, like blankets, down comforters, and curtains, are favorite mite habitats. Launder rugs, bed linens and curtains in hot water (more than 130°F) to kill mites. Dust often with a damp cloth. Get zippered, allergyproof covers for your mattress and pillows.      
  • Dog and cat dander . If pet owners come to visit, be sure to vacuum couches or chairs they've used after they leave. Their clothes may carry their furry friends' dander, which can be deposited in your home and aggravate symptoms.
  • Indoor mold. Get a dehumidifier to dry out your basement, and use exhaust fans in other areas prone to dampness and mold, such as the kitchen and bathroom. Wash bath mats often, and keep houseplants to a minimum (mold loves potting soil).

3. Be a clothes snob.
Shun synthetic materials for natural ones like cotton—your nose and eyes will thank you.

Who knew? When synthetic fabrics rub against one another, they create an electrical charge that attracts pollen, which, as it turns out, is also electrically charged, says Gailen D. Marshall, MD, PhD, director of clinical immunology and the division of allergy at the University of Mississippi. Natural fibers such as cotton also breathe better, so they stay drier and less hospitable to moisture-loving mold.

Toss just-washed clothes and bedding in the dryer—don't hang them outside on a clothing line. Avoid contacts when your eyes feel itchy, and feel free to splurge on a pair of jumbo sunglasses—they'll help shield your peepers from airborne irritants.

4. Get smart about gardening.
Got killer allergies? The best way to deal with yard work is to have someone else do it. Failing that...

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Take an antihistamine or cromolyn sodium about half an hour before you head outdoors, and wear a pollen mask whenever you dig around in dirt, rake leaves, or mow the lawn—activities is all but guaranteed to stir up pollen and mold. Keep your lawn cut short, so it's less likely to sprout pollen-producing flowers or weeds. If you have a compost heap—a major mold breeding ground—consider getting rid of it or moving it far away from the house.

Finally, consider replacing plants that produce lots of offending pollen with more benign varieties. Rules of green thumb: Choose showy, flowering trees and shrubs such as apple and cherry trees and azaleas; they produce waxy pollen that's too heavy to ride the breeze. On the lawn, opt for nonpollinating ground cover such as myrtle or ivy rather than grass.

5. Give yourself a good scrubbing.
Showering more often may keep allergy invasions at bay.

While you're outside, pollen and mold spores can parachute onto your hair, eyebrows, eyelashes, and skin. To give them the boot and minimize your exposure, do the following once you cross the threshold: Wash your hands, rinse your eyes, and shower (before bed, or right away if you've done yard work).

Same goes for your pet. Even if you're not allergic to your pup, he can become an allergy magnet after running around outdoors. Brush off his fur before you give him free reign of the house again.

6. Consider a stronger treatment.
OTC meds like antihistamines and decongestants can significantly relieve symptoms, but if your nose is still running, it may be time for an upgrade.

If you've got a faucet for a nose and are constantly congested, ask your doctor about a steroid nasal spray, which relieves these symptoms better than an antihistamine, says David Shulan, MD, FAAAI, vice president of Certified Allergy & Asthma Consultants, a practice in Albany, NY. The catch: You need to use it on a regular basis, and it can take up to 2 weeks to have an effect. A spritz every once in a while is useless, Shulan says.

If pollen, ragweed, or dust mites are your main problem, think about getting allergy shots (immunotherapy). Injections of very small, safe amounts of the chemicals you're allergic to will help your immune system become resistant to the allergens, so your body doesn't launch a full-out attack every time you inhale a pollen particle. You get shots once or twice a week for several months in gradually increasing doses, and periodic maintenance shots after that for 3 to 5 years.

"Not enough people who could benefit from allergy shots consider them," says John R. Cohn, MD, chief of the adult allergy section at Jefferson Medical College, Thomas Jefferson University. "They may help if you don't respond to usual treatments because they reduce your sensitivity to allergens instead of only treating symptoms. I find that about 80% of patients see an 80% improvement." Unfortunately, the shots are not as effective for most mold allergies, says Shulan.

7. Sip green tea.
The wonder cup just got even more wonderful. Yep, heart-healthy, cancer-quashing green tea may battle allergies too.

Japanese researchers found that EGCG, the abundant antioxidant compound in green tea, may help stop your body from mounting an immune response to a wide range of allergens, including pollen, pet dander, and dust. Steeping two or three cups a day of green tea helps bolster the body's defenses, especially as you age, suggests Lester A. Mitscher, PhD, a professor of medicinal chemistry at the University of Kansas and author of The Green Tea Book: China's Fountain of Youth.

8.  Give yoga a go.
Weave yoga into your workout plan, and you can say namaste to your allergies.

"Stress promotes inflammation, which can heighten your body's allergic response," says Tina Sindwani, MD, an assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. "Yoga is proven to reduce stress, so it may bring relief. Also, various yoga breathing techniques can help open your stuffed-up nasal passages, and certain poses can expand your lungs." Take a class or do a DVD up to 3 times a week during allergy season.

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