Achoo Alert



THE ALLERGY SEASON is coming early this year to the DC area. The late blasts of winter weather cause trees like maples that usually begin pollinating in February to delay, and as a result they will be pollinating along with other trees, such as ash and oak, according to allergist Thomas Fame of Salem, Virginia.

Many DMV (DC, Maryland and Virginia) residents believe they live in one of the worst areas in the country for allergies, also that those who move here allergy-free quickly develop them. But in annual lists of top 100 “Allergy Capitals,” DC never even places in the top third.

The DC area always has a lower (less bad) allergy score – based on the area’s pollen score, duration of the peak season, percentage of affected people and allergy medicine use as well as the number of specialist allergy docs — than New York City and much lower than Philadelphia. Different cities’ positions on the list, created by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), change every year for each spring and each fall.

On the other hand, pollen thrives in high humidity – and DC has that. Also, there’s what the AAFA calls “Spwinter,” spring overlapping with winter. When tree buds begin appearing in February but winter conditions continue, especially with excess precipitation, “an increased presence of mold…as well as intermittent tree pollination… can trigger allergic reactions,” Mike Tringale, senior vice president of external affairs for AAFA, told Reuters.

Above all, allergy risks are personal, which means pollen counts are not always relevant. What matters is which specific trees and plants produce an allergic reaction in you: maple tree pollen might get you when ragweed has no effect. In the Northeast, tree pollens – especially birch, cedar, cottonwood and pine — begin in February and March along with mold; grass pollens begin in May and June; and weed pollens begin in August and last through the fall.

Seasonal allergic rhinitis, nicknamed “hay fever,” occurs when the immune system overreacts to a trigger substance and causes symptoms such as itchy eyes and a scratchy throat. These symptoms are most likely part of an allergic reaction – and not a head cold — when they are accompanied by fatigue, caused by the immune system working so hard. Unfortunately, antihistamines, one of the best weapons against allergic reactions — especially when taken before the worst symptoms appear — often create their own fatigue.

Also unfortunately, among steps advised for alleviating symptoms, many are impractical:
Stay indoors when pollen is worse from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m., — and plan outdoor activities for later in the day. Stay indoors, especially on days with high pollen counts, and especially on dry, hot and windy days, because pollen decreases during and after rain. Before or immediately after coming indoors, remove your clothes and put them in the washing machine. Wash your hair before going to bed… and risk catching a real head cold.

A little more doable: before coming indoors, remove or wipe your shoes; shower at night; and adjust your diet. If ragweed is your problem, stay away from zucchini, cucumbers, bananas, melons – because your body confuses these proteins with those of ragweed. If birch or alder trees, watch out for apples, cherries and celery; if grass, tomatoes, potatoes and peaches.

And then there’s the “sinus rinse” to flush allergens from the nasal cavity: run lukewarm water through one nostril so that it comes out the other side — using neti pots or squeeze bottles available in the drug store, the most popular made by NeilMed. Slightly gross, but when you’re suffering, it’s a good option.

For the severely afflicted, there are injections, new immunotherapy tablets that must be started months before allergy symptoms begin and face masks. Also, keep your windows closed, use your air-conditioner and vacuum often using a HEPA filter.

The number of allergy sufferers has been increasing steadily since the early 1980s, an “increase that can be linked directly to a rise in pollen production,” according to Tringale, who speculates that increases in environmental carbon dioxide may be making “plants grow bigger and thus pollinate more.”

Allergies currently affect about 45 million Americans, who account for more than 17 million outpatient office visits each year. Allergies are the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the U.S., costing in excess of $18 billion,” according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

–Mary Carpenter

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