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Early spring means early allergies for many

By Elizabeth Simpson, The Virginian-Pilot – 3/30/2012

A mild winter may have cut us a break on colds and flu, but it's making up for it with an early punch of spring allergy woes.

Allergists report the annual onslaught of sniffling, sneezing, stuffy patients is well under way, a few weeks earlier than usual. Pediatric allergist Cynthia Kelly said she started seeing spring allergy sufferers in early to mid-March, about three weeks sooner than normal.

Trees release pollen as the weather warms. Rain washes it away, but the last couple of dry days have swollen the count. The Weather Channel is predicting high levels of pollen for today and Saturday, and very high levels for Sunday. This is the first week this year with a high level of pollen each day of the week, according to Weather Channel statistics, but even the first week of March had some high-level days in this region.

The yellow haze of pine pollen is usually the visual tip-off to spring allergy season, but it doesn't cause the more severe reactions of other pollens that are lighter and less noticeable. The pine pollen is a sign that other, more irritating pollens are either here or on the way, so hang on to your tissue box.

Kelly, an Eastern Virginia Medical School professor who practices at Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters, said an early allergy season doesn't always mean a longer one: "Trees only have so much pollen."

But if you are allergic to several different types of pollen that stretch over different periods of time, it may create a marathon season of sneezing, congestion and itchy, watery eyes. Tree pollen is followed by the grass and weed allergy season.

Dr. Gary Moss of Allergy & Asthma Specialists, with offices in Virginia Beach, Chesapeake and Norfolk, said some plants have a defined growing period, but others keep pollinating as long as there's warm weather, so an early spring can mean a longer season for some sufferers.

Dr. John Sweeney, an allergist who practices in Portsmouth and Suffolk, said he's been seeing spring allergy cases a little earlier, but the symptoms haven't been worse than other seasons. In fact, his impression is some patients had less-severe symptoms this year because the season has come on more gradually than in the past.

When the spring comes suddenly after a long, hard winter, he said, a sudden onslaught of pollen can be brutal.

About 35 million Americans suffer from seasonal allergies, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Rain can help by washing it away, but it also spurs rapid plant growth, so last weekend's dousing was a perfect set up for high pollen counts this week.

Windy days can make matters worse, according to Dr. Mark Hippenstiel, a family practice doctor at a Patient First in Virginia Beach. He said doctors there have seen an uptick in eye and sinus infections the past two weeks.

Another sign that the season started early is that, according to a Yahoo! spokeswoman, searches for "best allergy treatments" began spiking in late February instead of the typical March time frame.

If Hampton Roads is bearing the brunt of an early allergy season, it got off light where flu is concerned. The state didn't hit widespread levels of flu until late February, about two months later than the previous year. Flu levels fell off widespread status after three weeks, much shorter than last year's 14-week run.

A professor of geography and climate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee has collected data showing some areas of the country have been edging toward earlier springs for decades. Cycles in atmospheric pressure and ocean temperatures play a role in "spring creep." Some climate scientists say global warming will lead to consistently earlier springs, creating longer allergy seasons.

Allergists recommend allergy and asthma sufferers keep their house and car windows closed, use air conditioning, change filters in the house, and stay indoors on dry, windy days.

Those who play outdoor sports and other activities should change their clothes when they get back inside, take a shower and wash their hair. Wear a mask when doing outdoor chores such as mowing. Contact wearers should clean their lenses more frequently.

Allergies are typically treated with over-the-counter or prescribed antihistamines, either in pill form or nasal spray. More severe cases are treated with allergy shots. People should also be on the lookout for symptoms like fever or mucus that is thick and dark yellow or green, which could be a sign of infection.

Hippenstiel said most allergies are easy to treat, so people shouldn't have to lock themselves inside this spring.

"It's kind of energizing," Hippenstiel said about the warm temperatures. "People should enjoy the weather and appreciate Mother Nature."

Elizabeth Simpson, 757-446-2635, elizabeth.simpson@pilotonline.com




If you live in Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Chesapeake, Portsmouth, or Hampton Roads and are suffering from spring allergies, tree pollen, grass and weed allergy, seasonal allergies, or eye and sinus infections and may need allergy shots, please call our allergists at any of our 4 locations listed below. Our allergists are here to help you.


About our allergy clinic
For more than six decades the allergists at Allergy & Asthma Specialists have been successfully treating children and adults suffering from grass and weed allergy, seasonal allergies, spring allergies, tree pollen, and eye and sinus infections in Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Chesapeake, Portsmouth, and throughout Hampton Road.

     
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