Most people love the spring weather but hate the allergies that come with it. For those living in central Virginia, that’s more true than ever this year. The lack of freezing temperatures this winter means the spring pollination season is in full swing, a few weeks earlier than normal.
An estimate 40 million Americans suffer from seasonal allergies according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), a non-profit organization founded in 1953. Also called allergic rhinitis, seasonal allergies cost Americans $10 billion annually and are the fifth leading leading chronic disease in the U.S. among all ages. They are the third most common chronic disease among children under 18 years old.
An allergy is a specific reaction of the body’s immune system to a substance that is harmless for most people. Seasonal allergies are reactions to an allergen that is typically only present for part of the year, including trees, weeds and grass. The symptoms of pollen allergies include a runny or congested nose, sneezing and itchy, red or watery eyes. In children, allergies are often to blame for frequent ear infections and eczema, a skin condition. For adults, allergies often lead to chronic sinus infections and bronchitis.
“We used to get a little bit of a break in the winter because it would get cold and the ground would freeze” said Debbie Fisher, the allergy coordinator with Blue Ridge Ear, Nose, Throat & Plastic Surgery, Inc., in Lynchburg, Va. “Not this winter.”
Spring allergies are often triggered when trees being to pollinate, which is most frequent in February through May. By the end of May, most tree pollen has subsided, but by then, grass pollens, which are typically in the air through late June, are in full force.
“May becomes the heaviest pollen month of the year in this part of the country because you have a number of trees still pollenating and the grass pollens have come out in full splendor,” said Dane McBride, M.D., with the Asthma and Allergy Center of Lynchburg. The Center also has locations in Roanoke and Salem.
By the time the grass pollens have receded, explained McBride, it’s usually very hot and dry outside, and the pollens rest on the ground until the wind stirs them up – sometimes lengthening the allergy season by several weeks.
You can’t blame just the weather though. Allergies are also believed to be hereditary and can develop at any age. Most people who have the allergic gene and develop seasonal allergies will at some point in their lives also develop allergic reactions to common year-round triggers, like mold, pet dander and dust mites, according to Fisher.
According to the AAFA, “If only one parent has allergies of any type, chances are 1 in 3 that each child will have an allergy. If both parents have allergies, it is much more likely (7 in 10) that their children will have allergies.”
The best way to manage allergies is through a combination of treatments including a reduction in the patient’s exposure to allergens, medications that minimize the effect of the allergens and immunotherapy. It’s usually a combination of treatments that allow patients to find real relief.
“The temptation on a beautiful 74 degree day when the sun is shining and the cool breeze is blowing, is to open the windows, but you can be sure when you see the curtains moving with the breeze that you’re bringing in all kinds of pollen,” said McBride.
Some common ways to reduce exposure to indoor and outdoor allergens includes:
Stay indoors when the pollen count is reported to be high, and on windy days when pollen may be present in higher amounts in the air.
Minimize early morning activity when pollen levels are higher - between 5-10 a.m.
Vacuum several times each week using an allergen filtration bag in your vacuum cleaner.
Remove carpet from your home.
Have home air ducts cleaned regularly.
Have an air cleaner installed in your heat pump/furnace.
Machine-dry bedding, stuffed animals and clothing on high heat for at least 30 minutes.
Cover your bed mattress and pillows in a zippered dust mite allergy proof covers.
Avoid hanging laundry outside to dry.
Avoid mowing the lawn and freshly cut grass.
For those suffering with pet dander allergies, Fisher advises patients to keep pets out of the bedroom to minimize exposure all night long.
Allergy testing can also help determine a patient’s exact triggers. Once identified, many patients choose allergen immunotherapy, either through shots or nasal drops, as a way to “cure” their allergies. Both forms of the treatment trick your body into building up a natural immunity to the allergen. In children, immunotherapy may help prevent the development of asthma.
Allergen immunotherapy requires the patient to commit to a three to five year series of shots that introduces increasing concentrations of the identified allergens into the body. The shots are given on a weekly, and then monthly basis, and should be administered by a licensed physician.
A new type of immunotherapy, which involves allergy drops that go under the tongue, is also available to patients, according to McBride. Called Sublingual Immunotherapy, this treatment option, which is popular in Europe, has not yet been approved by the FDA, which means most insurance companies will not cover the costs. The drops are not believed to be as effective as the shots, but are a more practical alternative for patients who prefer the convenience of being able to administer the treatment at home.
Fisher and McBride agree that when your allergies are impacting your daily quality of life, it’s time to see an allergist for treatment.