Every year you probably hear the same thing: “This is going to be the worst allergy season ever!” But is it true this year? After a 2013-14 polar vortex that left Central Ohioans begging for mercy, it might be.
“The running joke amongst allergists is that every spring is declared ‘the worst allergy season ever,’” Dr. David Stukus, an allergist from Nationwide Children’s Hospital, wrote by email. “Spring is just a difficult time, as this is when outdoor pollen becomes elevated after four to six months of not being present.”
But this year the “unusually long and harsh winter led to a later onset tree pollen season for many areas of the country,” Stukus said.
“Instead of starting as early as February, some areas did not notice high pollen levels until April,” Stukus said. “Some people feel that the sudden, late release of large amounts of tree pollen, with possible overlap with grass pollen, may make this season particularly difficult.”
Pollen season typically lasts from February through the first frost in the autumn, but the type of pollen changes from trees, to grass and weeds, to ragweed in the autumn, Stukus said. So in the spring, around March or April, tree pollen usually dissipates right about the time grass pollen to appears. This year, the two may be blasting us at the same time.
Dr. Princess Ogbogu, assistant professor of medicine, allergy and immunology at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, said she’s already seen an influx of allergy sufferers at her door due to the possible double whammy.
“We’re getting a hybrid,” Ogbogu said. “Instead of two distinct pollen seasons, we’re getting a blend of them.”
Typical allergy symptoms include sneezing, runny nose, sinus congestion and watery and itchy eyes, ears and throat. Allergies aren’t typically life-threatening unless you suffer from asthma, Ogbogu said.
“Seasonal allergies are going to cause a poor quality of life, to not feel well, or to feel tired,” Ogbogu said. “But, if they trigger asthma, that can be severe.”
Allergies can also mimic other sicknesses, Stukus said. So how do you know if it’s pollen or a virus making you lose the spring in your step?
“As a general rule, allergy symptoms will be much more prolonged, lasting several weeks or months,” said Stukus, who noted you can thank your DNA for those pesky allergies — if your family has ‘em, you’ll likely have ‘em at some point, too. “Allergy symptoms tend to make people itchy, as histamine is the chemical released from allergy cells and causes a lot of itching.”
A solid indicator you’re battling something more than allergies, though, is a fever.
“Fever never accompanies allergy symptoms but may be present during an infection,” Stukus said. “Upper respiratory infections can last as long as two to three weeks for some people, but then they generally feel better and symptoms don’t return right away.”
If there’s any confusion or concern, both experts recommend a trip to the doctor to diagnose your ailment. But if you’re sure what you’re battling is pollen-related, Dr. Ogbogu said there’s plenty of over-the-counter meds that can help your itching.
“But if you try the over-the-counter medications and you still have symptoms, or they’re persistent, definitely go see an allergist,” Ogbogu said.
Other helpful at-home therapies include nose and sinus irrigation with sterile water or saline to flush out the pollen and other irritants. Throat lozenges can soothe a sore throat, as can hot tea or honey, Stukus said.
“Honey, in particular, has been touted as a ‘natural desensitization’ for pollen allergy,” Stukus said. “The trouble is that honey mostly contains pollen from flowers, which do not cause significant symptoms for most people. Tree and grass pollen is spread by the wind, and this is what causes symptoms for most people.”
Another possible way to de-allergy yourself? Reduce your stress levels.
“A recent study published by Dr. Amber Patterson, from Nationwide Children’s Hospital and The Ohio State University, demonstrated that adults who have more stress in their lives also report more severe allergy symptoms,” Stukus said. “Whether one causes the other has yet to be determined, but lowering one’s stress through good eating/sleeping habits, relaxation techniques and regular exercise can provide many health benefits.”
But there is hope for allergy sufferers, according to Stukus, who said, contrary to popular belief, the possibility still remains that the polar vortex may leave us with the best allergy season we’ve seen yet.
“Given the late start, many people may actually find this to be a relatively mild spring in regards to allergy symptoms, as they gained two months of symptom-free living [between February and April].”
Maybe it’s not the worst allergy season after all. •
How to reduce your allergies this season
According to Dr. David Stukus, an allergist from Nationwide Children’s Hospital, whether you’re an adult or a child, the precautions this spring are the same as every year.
Try to limit outdoor activities when pollen counts are highest (generally early morning hours before noon).
Keep windows closed at all times to reduce pollen exposure inside the home.
After spending time outdoors, remove clothing and wash face and hair before bed.
Over-the-counter medications and at-home treatments, like a saline wash of the nasal cavity, can help reduce allergies.
Most important, realize you don’t need to suffer. Board-certified allergists and immunologists have many treatments available to help make people feel better both short- and long-term.