Allergy sufferers recognize the signs, and they know it is the start of something more insidious than a simple cold. This year, near record-level tree pollen counts have allergy victims seeking relief.
May is National Allergy Awareness Month. It's the time every year when tree pollen, the chief culprit for spring allergies, is at its worst. Due to a number of environmental factors, according to the experts, this year has been even more tortuous than usual:
• A long, cold winter dumped large amounts of snow and rain across much of the nation, and trees in the Northeast received a large amount of water (making them eager to pollinate).
• Spring came late, and it arrived with hotter-than-normal temperatures that essentially compressed the pollen season.
• The month of April was largely dry, which meant that rainwater didn't wash much of the pollen from the air, leaving it to blow and worsen allergies.
"This spring has been one of the higher ones in terms of pollen counts," said Kingston allergist and dermatologist Dr. Samuel Stein. "Snow in the mountains means that pollen levels, especially tree pollen, are high this spring."
Pollen is composed of tiny grains meant to fertilize other plants. It is spread into the air by grasses, trees and weeds. For those who aren't allergic, it's mainly a dusty yellow nuisance that can accumulate on cars, linger on windowsills, or blow around on windy, dry days. But for those who are allergic, breathing pollen causes the body to respond with antibodies, resulting in the release of histamines into the blood. Those histamines cause red skin, watery eyes and runny noses.
The trees to blame? They're numerous, said Stein, who listed oak, birch, poplar, elm, ash, maple, hickory, beech and pine as the types most responsible for pollen in the Northeast. The Hudson Valley is annually ranked as one of the most difficult places for allergy sufferers to live, according to the Allergy and Asthma Foundation of America (www.aafa.org). In last year's report, Hudson Valley cities was ranked in the top half of the 100 most challenging places nationwide. And for most of March and the entire month of April, pollen counts were listed as "high" daily by Weather.com and other news sources. The listing is uncommon for months in which wet weather will often keep pollen out of the air.
"We live in a very wooded area and get very high tree pollen counts regularly," said Dr. Pradeep Sharma, the director of Allergy & Asthma Specialists, a Poughkeepsie-based practice. "Although there really is no hard data, it certainly has been a hard year for pollen."
Spring may be the peak season for tree pollen, but allergy sufferers face challenges throughout the year. Peak allergy seasons are broken down according to allergen: tree pollen from March through June, grass from May through August, weeds from July through October, and ragweed from August through October.
"There are distinct pollen, grass and weed pollen seasons, which affect people differently," said Stein. "It's important to know what you're allergic to and to take steps to limit heavy exposure to the worst allergens."
For those who struggle with allergies, Sharma broke maintenance down into three distinct principles:
• Environmental control: "You have to work very hard to stay away from airborne irritants like tree pollen," said Sharma, who advised allergy sufferers to keep windows closed and use air conditioning on hot days, and to shower daily before sleeping to wash away any pollen picked up during the day. He also said that allergy sufferers should wash their hands before touching their eyes or nose during peak pollen season to keep the worst of the stuff out of their airways and bloodstreams.
"You should also try to reduce your exposure to any airborne irritants, including second-hand smoke, perfume and dust," said Sharma.
• Medications: There are plenty of over-the-counter medications available for allergy relief, including popular choices like Claritin, Allegra and Zyrtec. "We're lucky to have a lot of low-sedative antihistamines available for relief," said Sharma, who explained that many common allergy medications were only available by prescription until recently. "Using a regular relief regimen when fighting allergies is important."
• See your doctor: There are times when allergy symptoms become too severe to treat with over-the-counter medication and closed windows. In those cases, said Stein, other treatment, including nasal sprays and allergy shots, might be needed.
"We do give allergy injections if a patient is having particularly severe allergies," said Stein, who explained that allergy shots act as a vaccine for allergens, albeit one that usually needs to be repeated every three to five years to maintain effectiveness.
Other ways to cope
In addition to seeing a physician and managing the amount of time spent outside, allergy sufferers have other options to manage their symptoms.
For those suffering more heavily, Stein recommended buying a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air filter) air-cleaning unit to keep pollen particles out of the air at home. Filter units can cost anywhere from a hundred to thousands of dollars. Even a simple model can help keep indoor air more pollen-free. Targeted medications, including nasal sprays and antihistamine eye drops, can help relieve specific symptoms.
Doctors Stein and Sharma both report that office visits are up this year over 2009, but added that allergy-relief traffic tends to remain steady throughout the peak season. Even as tree pollen dies down over the next few weeks, grass and ragweed allergies will begin and last through the summer, making it important to seek treatment now and identify allergic reactions before they become impossible to live with.
"If you can keep your house as free of pollen as possible, limit your exposure on high pollen-level days and maintain a treatment regimen if necessary, it's possible to greatly reduce your suffering from allergies," Stein said.++