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Save yourself from allergy attacks

May 24, 2010|By TIFFANY ARNOLD
  • It's allergy time and weather has a lot to do with why we're sneezing more.
Photo illustration,

For those who have never had hay fever and are suddenly sniffling, sneezing and reaching for the Claritin, you're not alone.

"This has been one of the more difficult seasons in a long time," said allergist Dr. Paul Mauriello, of the Allergy & Asthma Center in Hagerstown and Chambersburg, Pa.

Mauriello said in April, local pollen counts ranged between 1,000 and 3,000 pollen grains per cubic meters of air.

"Anything over 200 is considered high," he said.

The Allergy & Asthma Center has tracked pollen since 1988 and has daily pollen count posts on its website, Allerdocs.com.

Why am I sneezing?

A snowy winter, sudden warmth and wishy-washy rain spells have helped build the bouquet of a worse-than-normal allergy season.

During a typical allergy season, plants begin to pollinate over the course of several months, said Estelle Levetin, chair of the University of Tulsa's department of biological science and head of the aerobiology committee for the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.

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But record snowfalls delayed the start of spring. Then warm weather suddenly arrived, triggering many plants to pollinate all at once, Levetin said. As a result, more people are suffering from allergies - even people who might not have had it so bad before.

Dr. Philip Norman, a retired researcher and allergist who developed the research program at Johns Hopkins Asthma and Allergy Center, said between 15 percent and 30 percent of the population is already genetically predisposed to having some sort of allergy. He said it's plausible but uncommon for people to develop allergies as adults.

Norman said there are antibodies called IGE, which were developed in evolution to help fight off parasites. "Now that we have fewer parasites, somehow or another, some people don't respond to the harmless substances that are in the environment, like pollen, with tolerance," said Norman, who helped found the Maryland Chapter of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.

What can I blame?

Mauriello said Washington County is similar to the rest of the nation when it comes to allergies.

Trees are the early culprits, and locally, the oak and maple trees are the biggest pollinators. "The first thing a tree does when it starts to grow is bud and make flowers," Mauriello said.

Grass pollen is another trigger, and typically persists until lawns dry out, generally the first week of June.

"But again, this has been a particularly wet spring," Mauriello said, "and if it's particularly wet like this, it could linger through June."

He explained that rain has a way of "cleansing" the air of pollen, which is good for the moment. But that also helps plants thrive when weather is warm - allowing the circle of sneezing to persist for allergy sufferers.

Mold, another trigger, crops up in midsummer and linger until the first frost. Ragweed emerges the latest in the season, specifically Aug. 15, and ends at first frost.

Why Aug. 15?

"The environmental trigger for plants in the spring time is warmth," Mauriello said, "so the trees and the grass start growing when it gets warm. That (date) is a moving target."

The environmental trigger for ragweed is the declining length of light in a day - which begins Aug. 15.

How can I treat it?

Treatment for allergies can involve some form of avoidance, over-the-counter medication, prescriptions or shots. Norman said most methods prevent symptoms. He further explained why medications with antihistamines are effective.

"When the pollen meets up with the IGE antibodies, histamine is released by histamine-containing cells," Norman said.

Histamine is what causes the swelling, itching and dilation of the blood vessels. Antihistamines block the body's response to histamine, Norman said.

Allergy sufferers also have the option of Singulair, which blocks leukotriene - a simple chemical that can be released during allergic reactions and causes swelling and blood vessel dilation.

Locally applied steroid drugs are used as anti-inflamatories inhibiting the cells that emit leukotriene and histamine.

Immunotherapy is another option, Norman said. It is similar in concept to that of a vaccine, except the person is not being injected with an infectious agent. Norman said allergy sufferers receive a low dose of the allergen triggering the production of antibodies that block the allergic reaction.

"It's specific in the sense that ragweed extract treats for hay fever in the fall and grass extract treats for grass pollen in the spring, and so on for the other tree pollens and animals," Norman said.

Mauriello said immunotherapy is considered when neither prescription medicine nor avoidance seem to work.

He said some people find relief by avoidance.

"We're not saying never go out," Mauriello said.

Instead, try to control your indoor environment. If you've spent the day outdoors, consider turning on your air conditioner and keeping the windows closed. This is a better option than having the windows open and running the fan. The indoor environment is no different from the outside, Mauriello said.

He gives the example of how doing this could benefit a soccer-playing youngster who suffers from outdoor allergies.

"We have some kids who are so miserable they can't go outside," Mauriello said. "The goal is not to lock you up. But that's three hours outside and 21 in. If I have protected you for 21 hours, there's value in that."

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