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Looking ahead to the budding allergy season

April 5, 2018

For many, budding trees and blossoming flowers of springtime serve as a reminder to take their allergy tablets to help remedy a season of sneezing, headaches, sore throats and runny noses.

Mary Jo Kozol, of Eau Claire, has experienced allergy symptoms since she was a child.

“Generally, I have watery eyes and I’ll start sneezing and I won’t know why and I’ll also have a runny nose,” Kozol said.

She carries a small container of Claritin allergy medication in her bag, ready to take a tablet as soon as those dreaded symptoms set in.  

Many different plants will begin to blossom in the spring, and could provoke symptoms for people in the Chippewa Valley as pollen spreads. This photograph was taken in a greenhouse. © 2018 Elizabeth Gosling

For others, springtime can cause irritable headaches that occur just as winter turns to spring. Brittany Shelstad, of Eau Claire, said she used to miss school because of never-ending headaches.

“I feel very stuffed up and then my eyes start to water. Then I have this constant headache that I can’t get rid of and I take Advil or Tylenol or whatever I have on hand, but nothing helps it,” Shelstad said. “It’s just kind of there.”

Dr. Adela Taylor, chair of the division of allergic diseases for Mayo Clinic Health System, said symptoms from seasonal allergies can harm people’s daily productivity, often lasting two to eight weeks, depending on the severity of the allergies.


Predictions for the 2018 spring season

Because the ground is frozen in winter, pollen and other sorts of environmental allergens are inactive, as nothing is blooming. The spring allergy season tends to pick up in the middle of May, Taylor said, but people who are extremely sensitive can begin to feel the symptoms at the beginning of May.

Last year, tree pollen counts were the highest in recent recorded history, which could make this year another severe time for allergy sufferers, Taylor said.

“There is a thought that pollen counts are increasing,” Taylor said. “In many areas more temperate plants are blooming sooner and blooming in areas that typically haven’t bloomed before. But it’s hard to predict year to year what we might encounter, especially in northern Wisconsin.”

Although Taylor said there are some exceptions, there are no mountainous areas for pollen and other allergens like mold to get trapped in.

Ragweed and other weeds evoke fall allergy symptoms, Taylor said. In the spring, when the trees begin to bloom, the most common allergens in the Chippewa Valley include tree pollen from maple, oak and birch trees. Come June, grass becomes active in releasing potential allergenic material too.

Because it starts blooming first, maple pollen is what affects those who happen to encounter seasonal allergies in early spring, Taylor said. Then, as other trees start to bloom, more people could experience worse symptoms because of the different types of pollen grains circulating in the air. Mold count increases with snow melt and wet grass, which could also spark allergenic symptoms.


Treating seasonal allergies

When treating allergy symptoms, Taylor recommends avoiding the cause of symptoms before resorting to medication to minimize discomfort.

The first step, Taylor said, is to check pollen counts. A national database records daily levels and has an allergy forecast for anywhere in the United States. Rain and moistness relate to mold counts, so keeping a dehumidifier could aid in eliminating or reducing symptoms.

She also advises taking showers in the evening to rinse off collected pollen through the day. In addition, wearing a hat and sunglasses will help keep pollen out of the hair and eyes.

If symptoms continue, saline rinses for the eyes and nose can release head congestion, Taylor said. Other steps include turning on the air conditioning instead of opening the windows and drying clothes in the dryer as opposed to on a clothesline.

“We want people to enjoy life and not be stuck inside, but some of these things are relatively easy to do, like not drying your laundry on the line,” Taylor said. “Showering and shampooing in the evening still allows you to be outside.”

In the case that the avoidance strategies do not prove helpful, Taylor said medication and medical treatment can help allergy sufferers stay productive despite their symptoms.

Antihistamines are a type of allergy medication and typically found over-the-counter. Claritin, Zyrtec and Benadryl are antihistamines and one of the first things doctors use for prescriptions when recommending medication to patients, according to WebMD.

People typically do not develop a tolerance to these medications, but if they do not work, Taylor recommends visiting an allergist.

“We can identify what they are allergic to, we can educate them on the best way to avoid, if they can, or decrease their exposure to what they are allergic to and we can offer other treatment options,” Taylor said.

A possible option could be allergen immunotherapy, or allergy shots.

Michael Barr, of Eau Claire, said he used allergy shots as a child to help aid the discomfort he tended to experience in the fall. Now, he’s more more affected in the spring with irritated eyes and his throat slightly closing up. To treat these symptoms he takes an antihistamine and eye drops.

“It’s hard to focus if it’s a really bad day. Like when the pollen count is really high and I’m trying to do something, especially if I have to be outside,” Barr said. “If it’s inside, it’s not so bad.”

Taylor said the allergy symptoms people encounter typically are like those of the common cold, except they last longer.

“Allergy sufferers can be quite miserable,” Taylor said, “And some of the over-the-counter medications can also lead to sedation and making it difficult for them to concentrate.”

Kozol said she takes Claritin about once a month during allergy season, but would consider doing an alternative to help herself feel better and avoid getting behind in school.

“If I get watery eyes and stuffy nose, it’s hard for me to concentrate,” Kozol said, “and usually if I’m getting those symptoms I think, “a nap would help,” and then I’ll take a nap.”

Shelstad, who experiences chronic headaches during spring allergy season, said she’s pushed through the pain before, but would rather stay home to feel better to increase her productivity later on.

“It gets to the point where I feel like passing out, because they (symptoms) are so severe,” Shelstad said. “I feel like I don’t want to risk walking and then suddenly feel like passing out. I’d just rather stay inside and not do that to myself and try to make myself worse.”

People with other allergies to animals, dust mites and mold could encounter additional or worse symptoms during the transition between seasons, Taylor said.

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