Smells like trouble

Thursday, April 14, 2005
Oak pollen is giving allergy sufferers problems this time of year.

Ah, spring: Birds are chirping, flowers are blooming and 40 million red-eyed American allergy sufferers are sneezing up a storm. Spring allergies, brought about by grass and tree pollen and some mold spores, are in full bloom, says Dr. Michael Critchlow of Allergy Partners in Doctors' Park. Common tree pollens that produce allergic reactions are oak, birch, maple, elm, sycamore and cottonwood.

"Generally the initial tree pollination season begins around here typically in February," Critchlow said. "It merges with the grass season and overlaps."

Something to look forward to: June, when the spring allergy season will abate, only to be followed by fall ragweed season that kicks off in the middle of August and continues until the first frost.

Critchlow said some people suffer only from spring allergies. Some wheeze in the fall. But others show symptoms all year long.

It isn't the flowering plants blowing in the wind that causes the allergy sufferers' eyes to water, Critchlow said. Flowering trees and plants don't produce as much pollen as the nonflowering plants. Plants produce pollen in order to reproduce.

"If you have flowers, insects take care of that for you," Critchlow said. "If you don't, you have to make tons of pollen and hope it gets to the right place. Grass and ragweed are not particularly pretty plants and don't have showy flowers. They make so much pollen."

And because pollen grains are small and buoyant, they can travel hundreds of miles, according to the Allergy Relief Center of Houston, Texas. People develop allergies when their bodies overreact to the allergens in the air.

Critchlow suggests three ways to treat allergies: avoidance, medicines and allergy shots.

It's hard to avoid allergies, Critchlow said.

"You can recirculate the air in your car and keep the windows down at home," he said. "That helps somewhat. There's a limited amount you can do if you want to keep a normal lifestyle and be outside some."

The Allergy Relief Center suggests wearing a pollen mask outdoors and showering and washing hair after being outside to get rid of lingering allergens.

Both prescription and over-the-counter treatments are available. Antihistamines help reduce sneezing, runny nose and itchiness and are available by prescription and over the counter. Some antihistamines can cause drowsiness and dry eyes. Decongestants work for stuffiness but tend to raise blood pressure. Nasal sprays such as cromolyn sodium and nasal steroid sprays are helpful, Critchlow said, but should be used only for a short time. Saline sprays are helpful for people with stuffiness, he said, and have few side effects, if any.

People with more severe allergies, or who suffer year round, may want to consider being tested by an allergist and getting shots to control the symptoms.

"It's best for long-term treatment," Critchlow said. "If it's just for a couple of months once or twice a year, you don't need shots."

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