Mild winter is bad news for spring allergy sufferers

03/25/2012 5:00 AM

03/27/2012 2:44 PM

Allergy season has come early this year and hit with a wheezing vengeance in parts of the South and Midwest, including Wichita, thanks largely to an unusually warm winter.

Doctors say the spring misery stretches from Mississippi to Ohio and from Georgia to Texas, where a drought has exacerbated the problem.

Wichita ranks as the fifth worst city for spring allergies in the country this year, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. It gets the distinction from its pollen score and amount of medicine utilization per allergy patient.

It’s not the worst Wichita has ever been ranked — we were No. 2 one year — but Wichita was 13th last year in the rankings.

“We’re usually pretty bad here, and it’s worse,” said Van Strickland, a Wichita doctor who specializes in allergies. More people are suffering from allergies, and one reason is that there’s more pollen in the air.

“We had a warm winter and we have a longer growing season and the carbon dioxide levels become elevated. People are swarming in with itchy eyes and runny noses,” he said.

A week of rain cleared out a lot of the pollen last week in Wichita, but parts of the South were seeing record pollen counts. The Atlanta Allergy & Asthma Clinic reported a pollen count of almost 9,400 one day last week; 1,500 is considered very high.

Conditions are expected to worsen in Wichita again this week.

“If it stays dry, I think we’re going to have a lot of pollen,” Strickland said. “People are sensitive to the pollens already. Their noses and eyes and lungs will start reacting.”

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America says more than 40 million Americans have nasal allergies, popularly called hay fever. In severe cases, sufferers have difficulty breathing that can send them to the emergency room.

The main principle to keep in mind for allergy relief is avoidance, Strickland said — as in not going outside.

“That’s pretty hard,” he acknowledged. “But you should use the air conditioner and a filtration system. If you open the windows, pollens come right in.”

One easy help is to shower after you’ve been outside, Strickland said, because pollen is attracted to hair and sticks to it.

The next level of relief to try is over-the-counter antihistamines such as Claritin, Zyrtec or Allegra or their generics, he said. “Those are good and they usually don’t make you sleepy like Benadryl.”

Nasal saline sprays or washes or using a neti pot also can also be helpful, “to flush stuff out of your nose.” If you use a nasal spray that contains more ingredients than saline, such as Afrin, do so only for a few days, Strickland said, or your condition could worsen.

One new nasal spray called Sinol-M that contains capsaicin is available at some health food stores, he said. It doesn’t have the downsides of Afrin, but the pepper may burn a bit. You can also get a decongestant without a prescription from a pharmacist but you have to show an ID and sign for it.

If you still need relief, you can see your primary-care doctor for prescription medications such as a corticosteroid nasal spray.

“A lot of people want a cortisone shot, but that treats every cell in the body,” dispersing the effectiveness from the area that really needs it, in this case the nose, Strickland said. Using such a spray three to seven days before allergy symptoms hit can help head them off, he said.

People who still need help can see a specialist such as Strickland from whom they can receive treatments or immunizations to make them more resistant to allergens.

So how long will this bout of allergy suffering last?

By May and June the trees usually have stopped putting out pollen, and the vitamin D that people get from more exposure to the sun in the summer probably helps people, Strickland said. Once school starts again, fall allergies usually start back up.

But with all the weird weather we’ve been having, he said, “who knows what it will be?”

Contributing: Associated Press

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