Although it snowed 10 days ago, plants are bravely sending out buds for leaves and flowers. While colorful — and hope inspiring — this means that those who suffer from spring allergies are getting ready for nature’s next round of pollen-induced misery.
“Pollen counts are starting to go up even with that last snow storm,” notes Dr. Sudip Ringwala, allergist for Allergy and Asthma Clinic of Kenosha, 4906 39th Ave.
According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, over 50 million Americans experience various types of allergies each year.
In our area from now through June, the pollen-bearing trees maple, juniper and alder will be the biggest contributors to the itchy eyes, runny nose, headache symptoms of spring allergies.
Weather will affect the behavior of these pollens, making them seem worse or less worse, Ringwala said. Among the mitigating factors are precipitation, frosts and winds. “Wind and dry days can be the worst as pollen will be flying then,” he said. “Rain can bring (pollen) down for a short time, although pollen may still be on the trees.”
Unfortunately allergies are not just for spring — allergenic sources abound year-round. After tree pollen, there’s grass and weed pollen which includes several varieties of lawn grass, golf course grass and ornamentals.
Just because the weather is cold doesn’t mean allergies cease altogether, says Ringwala. When it’s cold, allergies go indoors, literally. Symptoms similar to those that accompany outdoor tree allergies — sneezing, itchy eyes and runny nose — can also be caused by dust mites, mold on indoor plants, pet dander and feathers (on birds and in pillows and winter jackets).
Ringwala says that physicians do not really know what causes some people to have allergies where others do not. Nor do they know why allergies can start later in life or fade away completely. “People can develop an allergy at any time for any reason.”
Because of this, a person with allergy-like symptoms who has never experienced seasonal allergies may wonder if their symptoms are from the common cold or an allergy. Ringwala offers this as a way to tell: “Are the symptoms continuing for a long period of time?” (This points to an allergy rather than a cold); or, “Does the person have a sore throat or body aches?” (The flu may be to blame.)
Other clues that a person may be suffering from a seasonal allergy may be if he or she is taking medications several times a week and it is not controlling the symptoms or if there is an annual pattern to the symptoms, he said.
Some symptoms can be blamed on neither an allergy nor a cold, but are the result of a reaction to the environment like a change in altitude or the weather, Ringwala said.
When severe allergies are suspected, it may be time for a visit to an allergy professional.
To determine the exact allergen to which a person is reacting, physicians utilize a scratch test by which they break the skin and expose it to several different potential allergens. The area or areas that swell and react indicate the offending substances.
Once the problem has been pinpointed, allergists can recommend ways to manage symptoms and reduce exposure to allergens.
Depending on a person’s symptoms, the fix for seasonal allergies includes over-the-counter medication from 24-hour decongestant pills, nasal sprays, steam and saline nasal rinses.
Another route is immunotherapy, also known as allergy shots. This entails the desensitization to specific allergens through a sustained course of low-dose exposure to them.
“It is very natural — you take all of things a person is allergic to, create a serum and inject it at low doses week by week. Over time a patient getting the injection will be non-reactive even on a high-allergen day.”
Immunotherapy has been shown effective against the whole range of allergens from plants to pets, Ringwala said.
The course of treatment may take two or three years but may provide a lifetime of allergy protection, Ringwala said.
A few years ago immununotherapy delivered under the tongue rather than by injection was rolled out and approved by the FDA. Ringwala says that although effective for the short term, this has not been shown to have the long-lasting benefits as the serum used in injection form.
Children as young as 1 year old may experience allergy symptoms, but treatment such as immunotherapy is not recommended until they are 6 or 7, Ringwala said.
Contrary to what some feel, this year’s temperature pattern is fairly typical and even a little warmer than usual for our area, Ringwala said. “We’re not seeing a necessarily higher pollen count but it’s happening a little sooner.”