Managing Spring Allergies in Korea

Do you suffer from springtime allergies? Spring is a beautiful season in South Korea, with an array of different types of flowers blooming and temperatures warming up after a long, cold winter. However, for many people, spring also brings seasonal allergies. Understanding the types of allergens that occur in Korea may help you manage your allergies throughout the spring season.

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Allergies Differ from Country to Country

Seasonal allergies can vary in severity and symptoms depending on the location and time of year. The primary triggers of seasonal allergies are typically pollen from trees, grasses, and weeds. However, the types of plants and the timing of their pollination can differ from country to country, leading to differences in the prevalence and severity of allergies.

For example, in the United States, the spring season is commonly associated with tree pollen allergies, while in Europe, grass pollen allergies are more prevalent during the summer months. Additionally, some countries may have different plant species that produce pollen, leading to variations in the types of allergies experienced. Therefore, it is important for individuals who suffer from seasonal allergies to be aware of the specific allergens in their region and to take appropriate measures to manage their symptoms. Let’s explore some of the most common types of spring allergens in Korea.

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Types of Spring Allergies in Korea

Korea has a few categories of allergens that surface during the spring season. These allergens include fine dust/yellow dust, tree pollen, grass pollen, ragweed, and mold spores.

Fine Dust

Fine dust, also known as particulate matter, is a type of air pollution that may have serious effects on those with allergies. These tiny particles, with a diameter smaller than 2.5 microns, can penetrate the lungs and cause irritation and inflammation. If you live in or near urban and industrial areas in Korea, you may be particularly vulnerable to the effects of fine dust. Such areas tend to have higher levels of pollution. The spring season in Korea tends to be windy, causing fine dust particles to become more easily airborne. Exposure to fine dust can worsen existing allergies, such as hay fever, or even trigger new ones.

Yellow Dust

Yellow dust, also known as Hwang Sa in Korea, is a type of particulate matter or fine dust. This phenomenon occurs because winds carry particles from China and Mongolia into South Korea. The severity of yellow dust in Korea can vary throughout the year with the highest concentration typically occurring in the western and central regions of Korea, particularly in Spring. Yellow dust can cause respiratory problems and worsen allergies, leading to symptoms like sore throats, itchy skin, and excess phlegm. Inhaling yellow dust can also damage the nose’s mucous membranes, exacerbating existing allergies and conditions like asthma.

Yellow Dust/Fine Dust in Korea
Image Source: Korea Herald

Tree Pollen

During spring in Korea, trees release pollen into the air, which can trigger allergies for some. A robust scientific study found the peak months for tree pollen in Korea are March to June. The study also found that during that time, the most common tree allergens are alder, oak, cedar, or elm. The amount of allergen by tree type changed significantly area by area across South Korea.

Of all the tree allergens in Korea, the ones known to cause the worst allergy symptoms are cedar, birch, and oak. This means that other trees may give off more pollen, but people tend to get sicker from cedar, birch, and oak.

Worst allergy-Inducing Tree Types
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Different tree allergens may affect individuals differently depending on their immune systems and the concentration of pollen in the air. Since tree pollen concentration can vary by region in Korea, some individuals may experience varying symptoms depending on their location and how accustomed to the allergen their immune system may be.

Grass Pollen

Grass pollen is also a common allergen in Korea during the spring season. The most common grasses that cause allergies are Timothy grass, Bermuda grass, and ryegrass. If your immune system is not accustomed to these types of grasses, you may be more susceptible to such allergic reactions. Much like any seasonal allergen, the concentration of grass pollen may vary depending on the region of Korea you live in causing varying levels of allergic reactions.

Grass Pollen
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Ragweed is a type of weed that grows in Korea and releases pollen in the fall season. However, some people may experience allergic reactions to ragweed during the spring season as well. Ragweed is one of the most common allergens in Korea. Its pollen can travel long distances in the air, causing allergies to flare up in individuals who may be nowhere near where this plant grows. This extremely lightweight pollen can remain airborne for days, increasing the risk of exposure to those who suffer from allergies.

Image Source: openPR

Mold Spores

As the weather warms up and humidity increases, mold spores become more prevalent in Korea during the spring season. Mold spores can grow in damp areas, such as bathrooms, basements, and kitchens. Mold can also accumulate inside air conditioners that go unused over the winter months. These tiny fungal spores can easily travel through the air, causing allergic reactions when inhaled.

Image Source: Korea Local Pages

How to Manage Your Spring Allergies in Korea

Here are 4 ways to manage your spring allergies.

1. Check the Air Quality Before Planning Outdoor Activities

Before planning an outdoor activity, checking the air quality is always a good idea. High pollen and dust level days can severely exacerbate allergy symptoms. Download air quality apps like Air Matters or Mise Mise to stay informed about the current dust and pollen levels in your area. These types of apps tells you what the Air Quality Index (AQI) is in realtime. Good AQI falls between 0-50, moderate AQI is between 50-100, and anything above 100 AQI is labeled as unhealthy and may affect allergy sensitive individuals. Taking preventive measures and being aware of the air quality can help you manage your allergies and enjoy good air quality days outdoors.

Fun Indoor Activities for Bad Air Quality Days

On poor air quality days, consider engaging in indoor activities to limit your exposure to pollen and dust allergens. Here are some indoor activities to try:

Watch a movie at your local CGV, Megabox, or Lotte Cinema

  • Copy and paste the following Korean terms into Naver or Kakao Maps to find a movie theater near you:
    • 영화관 – Movie Theater/Cinema
    • 극장 – Movie Theater

Relax at a cafe

Spend time at a local cafe where you can do things like play board games, read books, enjoy coffee, or play with animals. The following South of Seoul blog posts offer cafes options in Pyeongtaek-si:

Get your game on at an arcade or PC Room

If you love computer games, you may also want to try a computer room known as a PC Bang or visit a gaming arcade. Here are some ideas of where to go or how to find such places.

Visit an indoor sports theme park

Sing your heart out at Noraebang (aka Karaoke)

Go shopping at a local mall/department store

2. Wear a Mask to Filter Out Dust and Pollen While Outdoors

Masks are a versatile tool that serve multiple purposes other than COVID prevention. Masks can be worn to manage respiratory illnesses, for protection against cold and weather, for cosmetic purposes, as well as for dust and pollen protection. Wearing a mask outdoors on poor air quality days is a great way to mitigate your exposure to allergens.

Allergenologists recommend using the FFP2 face mask for allergies due to their tight fit and high filtering capabilities. However, the KN95, KF94, and N95 masks work just as well. These types of masks can be purchased online from Coupang or GMarket by searching “KN95 Mask (KN95마스크)” or “FFP2 Mask (FFP2마스크).”

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3. Do Some Spring Cleaning

Spring Cleaning can be an effective way to manage allergies and reduce your exposure to allergens in your home. Dust, mold, and pet dander are common allergens that can accumulate throughout your home.

A few important tasks to incorporate into your spring cleaning agenda include:

  • airing out your house on a good air quality day
  • cleaning and replacing air filters in your air conditioner and air purifier
  • getting your air conditioner serviced to remove the dust and mold build-up inside
  • using damp cleaning tools to avoid kicking up too much dust, pollen, and dander into the air
  • cleaning your washing machine drum to mitigate the growth of mold
  • and, using a mask while cleaning can protect you from inhaling allergens and irritants.

For a comprehensive guide and list of resources, read the South of Seoul Spring Cleaning in Korea to help you get started on your spring cleaning!

4. Visit the ENT (Ear Nose Throat Clinic)

When your spring allergies in Korea start to set in, visiting your local ENT may be the best option for you to manage your symptoms. Going to a medical clinic in Korea can seem challenging due to potential language barriers. However, tools and resources like translation apps and free interpretation call services like BBB Korea are available to help get you through your appointment if you don’t speak Korean.

ENT visits don’t generally require an appointment. However, during peak allergy or flu season, they can get busy. Additionally, most clinics in Korea, including ENTs will close during the lunch hour. Therefore, calling ahead to check on their wait times, to make an appointment, or to double-check that they are open is a good idea. Use BBB Korea for interpretation assistance if needed when you call.

The cost of an ENT visit may vary depending on the treatment you receive. However, don’t let the fear of high cost deter you from making a visit if you need to. ENT visits are quite affordable. I recently went in for a check-up after waking up with a migraine and half of my head swollen due to allergies and left with a 5,000 KRW (about $3.70 USD) bill.

ENT visits are covered (about 70-80% of the cost) by the Korean National Health Insurance (NHIS). Medication is also covered under NHIS (between 60-65% depending on where you live). At my ENT visit, I was prescribed 5-days worth of migraine medication, an anti-inflammatory, and a digestive medication (typically given to help your body process other medications that may cause nausea). My pharmacy bill totaled 8,700KRW ($6.51USD).

If you would like to skip the ENT and purchase over-the-counter allergy medication, ExpatHealthSeoul has a list of medications you can purchase at your local pharmacy in their “A Guide to Allergy Medicine in Korea” blog post.

To find an ENT or a pharmacy near you, copy and paste the following Korean terms into Naver or Kakao Maps:

  • 이비인후과 – ENT
  • 약국 – Pharmacy
ENT Clinic 이비인후과
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Korean Pharmacy 약국
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To conclude, spring allergies are a common problem for many people living in Korea. Fine dust, yellow dust, tree and grass pollen, ragweed, and mold spores are the most common allergens that people may encounter during the spring season. The concentration of these allergens may vary depending on the region of Korea, causing varying levels of allergic reactions. To manage spring allergies, individuals can take various preventive measures, such as checking the air quality before going outside, engaging in indoor activities on bad air quality days, and taking medications prescribed by a doctor. With appropriate precautions, individuals can enjoy the beauty of spring in Korea and manage their allergies effectively.

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