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Doctors Tie Warming to Increase in Allergy Suffering

Allergies trigger agony across the U.S.


High pollen counts make it a nasty spring sneezing season for many, April 24, 2009


For Dawn Quiett of Dallas, springtime is guaranteed to bring sneezing, a runny nose, an itchy throat and especially congestion. But this year's allergy season has been so 'brutal' that her usual armamentarium just isn't winning the battle.


"I would give a million dollars to breathe through my nose for 10 minutes," says Quiett, 39. "I think I have bought enough Sudafed in the last month that the feds might think I am making meth."

She's far from alone in her suffering. Doctors say spring allergies are wreaking exceptional havoc in many areas of the United States this year.


"Every report I've heard around the country is that it's pretty bad," says Dr. Richard Gower, president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.


Gower, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Washington who practices in Spokane, says late snowfalls -- the city broke a record with nearly 100 inches of snow over the winter -- meant that trees didn't start blooming until recently. That, in turn, led to a dramatic release of pollen all at once, sometimes called "super bloom," rather than the more typical steady release spread out over time.


Now that it's warming up, he says, "it's beginning to hit the fan."


Dragging out the misery


The spring allergy season starts when trees and plants begin blooming, which can be as early as January and February in traditionally warmer areas such as California and Arizona, and late February and March across the South. In colder parts of the country that may still be having snow into March or after, plants usually start blooming later. All this generally means more and longer suffering in the warmer areas, although as Gower notes, late snowfalls can spell their share of misery when they lead to a burst of all kinds of pollen at once.


Overall, experts say, global warming trends that lead to unusually mild winters are taking their toll in various areas around the country.

In general were seeing warmer weather earlier, says Dr. Stanley Fineman, an allergist at the Atlanta Allergy and Asthma Clinic and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Because of this warming trend, were seeing higher pollen counts sooner, more difficulty and longer seasons.


Of the top 10 spring allergy capitals for 2009, named by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, seven are in the southern U.S.: Louisville, Ky.; Knoxville, Tenn.; Charlotte, N.C.; McAllen, Texas; Greensboro, N.C.; Little Rock, Ark.; and Augusta, Ga. The list, which identifies the most challenging places to live with spring allergies,  is based on tree pollen scores but also the number of allergy medications used per patient and the number of allergy specialists per patient. The other cities on the list are Madison, Wis.; Wichita, Kan.; and Dayton, Ohio.


In Atlanta, its definitely worse than it has been in previous years, says Fineman. While the typical allergy season in Atlanta is from mid-March through May, he says, both this year and last year warm weather has meant surges of tree pollen in February. Quiett says Dallas, too, was having hot days in February  up to 90 degrees Fahrenheit.


This causes a double-whammy when the rest of the plants bloom later in spring because allergy sufferers have already been primed earlier in the season, he says. When people are primed and then re-exposed to pollen, their symptoms can be worse because a smaller amount of pollen triggers even more misery than normal. Your allergy cells are ready to fire when youre primed, so you fire quicker, he says.


Oklahoma also saw trees blooming earlier than usual this year, says Dr. Warren Filley, an allergist and professor of medicine at University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City.


Its been on average a worse season than we often see, he says.

Last year in Oklahoma City, spring allergies werent as bad because ice storms during the winter took trees and branches out meaning less pollen come spring, says Filley. But this past winter was milder, leading to many cedar trees blooming a little earlier than usual, in February. There also has been less rain to wash the pollen out of the air, he says, and more wind throwing pollen around.


On the other hand, Dr. David Rosenstreich, chief of allergy and immunology at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, says his practice isnt as busy so far this year as last. The season there usually doesnt peak until between mid-April and mid-May, so it may be that this year is not so bad, or it may be that it just hasnt reached its peak yet. Its also possible, he says, that fewer people are seeing doctors because of the economy.


Brad Carr, 59, found that his allergies worsened dramatically when he moved a few years ago from Albany, N.Y., to Montgomery, Ala., and they are particularly bad this year. My eyes constantly tear up and the scratchy throat feeling doesnt dissipate, so that makes swallowing foods a real treat, he says. My nose runs 24/7.


Like Quiett, his usual medications, the antihistamine Claritin and the decongestant Sudafed, arent doing the trick this year. So his doctor recently prescribed Flonase, a steroid nasal spray, and Zyrtec, another antihistamine.


Sometimes I feel like I am walking around with a CVS in my pocket, says Carr, whos getting a little better relief now and anxiously awaiting the end of spring so that he can once again enjoy a game of golf.


Vary your battle plan


If you suffer during sneezing season, there are several effective treatment options but you may need to experiment to find which approach, or combination of approaches, works best.


"Everybody responds to the medications differently," says Gower. "Sometimes you have to keep trying and vary the medicine and the regimen."


© 2009