If you are one of the estimated 67 million people in the U.S. who suffers from seasonal allergies, you already know allergy season is here! While the rest of us have been enjoying the early blooms, you’ve been eyeing those same flowers, bushes and trees with distrust and maybe even a little hate.
But do you know what causes your allergies, why you have them and how you can manage them? The allergy experts at Lexington Clinic have some answers!
Spring allergy season typically begins in mid to late March, when trees, such as hickory, oak, sycamore, maple and birch, begin to flower, releasing pollen into the air. Pollen, those tiny grains of reproduction, are coated in a protein similar to that of some parasites. When the body detects these proteins, it can send the immune system into overdrive trying to fend off the invader.
It’s this immune system response that results in the sneezing, stuffy nose and itchy, watery eyes that plague those with allergies.
Unfortunately, for so many, tree pollen is just the beginning of the pollen parade. Just as the trees stop spewing pollen into the air, grasses get going. That bluegrass for which Kentucky is so famous? It’s an especially prolific producer of pollen.
If you’re fortunate enough to escape these allergens, there’s always mold lurking around the corner. Mold allergies are typically more severe during wet/raining springs that are followed by warm weather as these perfect conditions for mold spores to develop and spread.
Why do you have allergies?
We know it’s an immune response, but why do some people have allergies and others don’t? Interestingly, evidence suggests that as diets and hygiene have improved, allergies have become more common. As the theory goes, our hygienic lifestyles have limited early exposure to potentially allergy-causing substances. Without this exposure, the immune system doesn’t recognize the allergen and thus launches a full-on assault.
While it may seem paradoxical, researchers have found what they believe is strong evidence for this theory: People raised in rural areas, around farms and livestock, tend to experience allergies at a lower rate than those raised in urban areas. And, it should be noted, you didn’t actually have to grow up on the farm, or work with livestock to build a stronger immune system. Just living in the vicinity seems to do the trick.
Allergies seem to be getting worse
“Many allergy sufferers come to my office and tell me they think their allergies are getting worse,” said Shuya Wu, M.D., PhD, with Lexington Clinic Allergy/Asthma. “There’s a reason for that – they probably are.”
Year after year, allergy season has been starting a little earlier, lasting a little longer and becoming more intense, Dr. Wu said. Pollen counts worldwide have been steadily rising, which means more irritants in the air and longer exposure to them.
“We know that carbon dioxide levels have been rising for some time,” Dr. Wu noted. Carbon dioxide – or CO2 – is used by plants during photosynthesis. The more CO2 that’s present, the more plants there will be, and they will grow more vigorously, and produce more pollen.
Those urban areas? They’re actually worse for allergens, because they are warmer (buildings, pavement, parking lots, etc. trap heat) and richer in CO2 due to vehicle emissions.
There are some things you can do to get relief from seasonal allergies, Dr. Wu noted, including:
• Reduce your exposure by keeping the doors and windows to your home closed during the season. This will help to limit the amount of pollen in your home.
• Use allergen-trapping filters on your heating and cooling system and change the filters frequently. Invest in a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter and change it as recommended by the manufacturer.
• Keep windows rolled up (and AC on if needed) when driving. If your car has a cabin air filter, change it every 15,000 to 30,000 miles.
• Choose outdoor times carefully. Pollen counts tend to be lower when it’s cloudy or rainy, higher when the winds are calm and skies clear. Pollen counts usually rise in the morning, peak at mid-day and start to fall afterward. If you have to do yardwork, gardening or mowing, try to choose times when pollen counts are lowest. If you have no choice, consider investing in an allergy mask for outdoor work.
• Track pollen counts online or on your phone. Smart phone weather apps often provide localized pollen counts.
• Change your clothing and shower after ex-
posure. Not only will this limit your immediate exposure, it can reduce the overall amount of pollen in your home.
Many allergies (and their symptoms) can be managed with over-the-counter medications, but you should consider seeing an allergist if:
• Your allergies interfere with your day-to-day life, make it difficult to sleep or keep you from doing the things you love.
• Over-the-counter medications don’t provide relief or if their side effects are unacceptable.
• You suffer from chronic sinus infection, nasal congestion or have trouble breathing.
• You experience warning signs of serious asthma such as struggling to catch your breath; wheezing or coughing especially after exercise or at night; you frequently feel short of breath or experience chest tightness; or you experience frequent asthma attacks even though you are taking your asthma medications as prescribed.
“For most people, being aware of pollen counts, planning their day carefully and taking an over-the-counter medication is sufficient,” Dr. Wu said. “But when allergies make your life miserable, or you feel like you can’t breathe or do any of the things you love, it’s time to see an allergist.”
Shuya Wu, M.D., PhD., is board-certified in allergy and immunology and pediatrics and specializes in treating allergies, asthma and immunologic disorders. Her practice at Lexington Clinic includes treatment of both adults and children. For more information or to schedule an appointment, please call (859) 258-5244.