Feb 19, 2009

How Can I Cope With Spring Allergy Season?

The severity of symptoms depends on the species of tree that triggers your allergy, and other factors, including the weather.

The colder weather may have given allergy sufferers a brief reprieve, but spring allergy season already has arrived in the Tampa Bay area, bringing sneezing, sniffling and other symptoms that can make you feel miserable.

Various pollen-spewing trees are the major source of allergies that last pretty much year-round in our region - Australian pine, cedar and cypress species, bayberry and 11 species of oak. Australian pine blooms twice a year, in the fall (November through December), and then again in late winter (January) through spring (May). Bayberry blooms from late January to April and cypress and cedar species pollinate beginning in October and continue through May. Oak trees start pollinating in December, and the particles can be collected from the air as late as the end of April.

Some people incorrectly blame Florida's orange and punk trees - both bear conspicuous flowers - for their respiratory problems. But these trees are pollinated by insects, and only pollen spread by wind triggers allergic symptoms.

While high pollen counts can aggravate everything from asthma to skin allergies, hay fever or allergic rhinoconjunctivitis is the most common spring allergy. People with spring hay fever can suffer symptoms from mid-February until the end of March or mid-April. The spread of oak tree pollen spikes in mid-March. The severity of symptoms depends on the species of tree that triggers your allergy, the amount of pollen in the air any given day, and other factors, including the weather and how much time you spend outdoors. On windy days and afterward, pollen counts are higher, while rain helps wash away the pollen and lower counts.

Pollen is measured in particles per cubic meter. Oak tree pollen counts can easily reach 3,000 or more particles per cubic meter of air - several times the amount considered high for trees. These naturally-occurring yellow allergens, dispersed on sidewalks, driveways and cars, are inhaled into the nose and lungs and cause an abnormal immune response in people genetically predisposed to allergies. (Pine tree pollen, also visible on the ground, does not cause allergy problems.) The reaction for hay fever sufferers is red and watery eyes, sneezing, and itchy, runny and stuffy noses as the body tries to fight off the foreign allergen.

Fortunately, treatment for allergies is usually very effective. One of the best things you can do is avoid pollen by staying indoors as much as possible, closing the windows of your house and car, and using the air conditioning. Try over-the-counter antihistamines and/or decongestants. If these remedies are not sufficient to alleviate symptoms, your physician can prescribe nasal sprays such as corticosteroids and antihistamines, and/or oral medications. People with severe allergies resistant to medications may benefit from allergen immunotherapy, a series of injections that gradually decreases their sensitivity to the substances triggering their symptoms.

So let me assure the 20 percent of people with allergies that you don't have to suffer in silence this spring. If allergy season is affecting your quality of life, consult your physician or a board-certified allergist/immunologist.

Dr. Lockey is a Distinguished University Health Professor of medicine, pediatrics and public health at USF, where he directs the Division of Allergy and Immunology and holds the Joy McCann Culverhouse Chair in Allergy and Immunology.

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