You’ve heard of the Polar Vortex. Now comes the Pollen Vortex.
Thanks to erratic weather that produced 70-degree days followed by snowstorms, trees that typically pollinate in early March released their pollen up to two months later. Those late bloomers overlapped with the pollination of other trees, causing a perfect storm of tree pollen in the spring air. A lack of rain to wash it away only worsened the situation.
Nguyen Tran, an allergist with Allergy and Asthma Care in Overland Park, knows how bad it has gotten.
“Typically if our pollen counts are over 50 or 60 particles of pollen per cubic meter of air, that’s considered high,” she said. “But in the last few weeks we had a spike up to 7,000. It’s like walking into a room of smoke. It’s bad enough where people who don’t even have seasonal allergies are having symptoms because it’s just so thick.”
But hold on to your hankies, allergy sufferers. The worst is yet to come. Just wait until the grass pollen joins the party in late May and continues through the summer.
“It’s one of the worst allergy seasons I’ve ever seen, and I have been doing this 20 years,” said Charles Barnes, director of the Allergy, Asthma, Immunology Research Laboratory at Children’s Mercy Hospital, which reports daily pollen counts for the metro area.
“The typical pattern is that in spring the trees pop, then we get a storm and it knocks (the pollen count) down. Then they pop again, and another storm knocks it down. Some springs that happens almost every other day. That’s not the case this spring.”
Just ask anybody with itchy, swollen, watery eyes. (Or runny noses. Or constant coughing, sneezing and wheezing.) Tran and her fellow allergists have been slammed with patients seeking relief. Even on a recent Saturday, the large waiting room at her office was nearly overflowing.
Help is coming. Just this year several new sublingual (under the tongue) allergy tablets (including Oralair and GrassTech) have hit the market. While they do not relieve acute symptoms, they are an “exciting addition” in the treatment of allergies, Tran said. They can have side effects, however, and are not for everyone. Ask your doctor.
Other medications, such as Nasacort, which were previously prescription-only, are now available over the counter. And, of course, allergists can offer shots and other relief.
For Lindsey Beil of Leawood, any help is appreciated. Beil has been allergic to tree pollen and other springtime irritants for about 25 years.
“This is the worst season I’ve ever seen,” the mother of three said. “I have numerous friends whose kids have ended up in the hospital on breathing treatments. It’s gotten that bad!”
For years she got by just using antihistamines and nasal spray. This year, for the first time, she got allergy shots.
“My eyes got so swollen they were almost closed,” she said. “I need some relief, and the medications just aren’t keeping the symptoms at bay.”
Beil and her three sons — ages 11, 8 and 2 — all have allergies. She and her middle son take oral steroids. And all but her eldest have needed special treatments just to breathe.
“That’s how bad we got,” she said. “We were coughing, sneezing, wheezing. I almost couldn’t go outside because my eyes were so itchy and swollen and painful and uncomfortable.”
The good news: The shots have helped.
In spring, trees unload microscopic pollen spores to be carried by the wind and make more trees. Problem is, that pollen sticks to your eyes and flies up your nose, triggering a violent response in people who are allergic.
In our area, hundreds of kinds of trees release pollen. Certain species, including oak, mulberry, osage, cottonwood, ash and walnut, are the biggest offenders, Tran said.
Hilarie Carollo of Lee’s Summit, the mother of three boys, said her middle son’s symptoms got so bad this year he started getting allergy shots.
“It’s hard for an 8-year-old to understand,” she said. “He likes to do yard work and use the leaf blower. And he loves getting on the riding lawnmower. He just wants to do that all the time. But it’s like the worst possible thing he could do. He has to wear masks and then come in immediately and take a shower. He’s really got to watch it because he gets real sick.”
Why are some people allergic and others aren’t?
“Part of it is genetics,” Tran said. “If you have a history of allergies in your family, you tend to pass that on. The other thing can be pollution. And then there’s the hygiene hypothesis, where we are too clean. Without regular exposure to potential irritants, our immune system is just looking for things (such as pollen or other allergens) to fight.”
Tran loves helping people with their allergies. Born in Kansas City to Vietnamese parents, Tran was top 10 in her class at Shawnee Mission South and knew she wanted to be a doctor since grade school. She graduated from the UMKC six-year medical program before going to the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis to become board-certified in internal medicine and pediatrics. She worked under a renowned allergist who inspired her to follow the same path.
Her father (a businessman who owns real estate in Overland Park) and her mother (a pharmacist) stressed education and told her she’d have to work hard for what she wanted in life. They set a good example after escaping South Vietnam before the fall of Saigon in 1975 and immigrating to America. Her father literally jumped from boat to boat as the North captured the city. He finally made it to a U.S. carrier, which took him to safety.
“That’s where I got my work ethic,” she said. “My parents came to this country with nothing but the clothes on their backs.”
Tran met her future husband, Joe, at potluck dinners her parents had with other Vietnamese families in the area. Her husband suffers from seasonal allergies and gets shots. Their three children, ages 8, 3 and 10 months, also have various allergies.
Recently she had to rush her youngest to the emergency room after he had a serious anaphalactic reaction. She figured out later he had a dairy allergy.
No matter what the allergy, Tran is confident she can help. That is, if patients come to see her.
“They try all the over-the-counter medications and (when they) don’t work they think ‘I guess I just have to suffer through this.’ But, really, they don’t. There is help.”
To reach James A. Fussell, call (816) 234-4460, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
DID YOU KNOW
People in developing countries don’t have allergy trouble, allergist Nguyen Tran said. The reason: intestinal parasites. “The allergy cell in the body is called an eosinophil,” Tran said. “Its original purpose was to fight parasites. In developed countries we have all these eosinophils just floating around in our bodies looking for things to do. And so there will be a pollen (spore), and (the eosinophil) will say, ‘This looks a little bit like a worm. I’m going to attack it.’ But in Third World countries the eosinophils are busy doing what they are supposed to do.”
Babies born via C-section have a higher incidence of environmental and food allergies compared to those born vaginally. “It’s because they’re not exposed to (certain bacterias) like they are when they go through the birth canal,” Tran said. “That’s one of the first introductions of the immune system to bacteria. Then it knows this bacteria is safe. But when they go through a C-section, it hasn’t been exposed to that.”
Allergies can, and often do, get worse as a person ages. Rarely do they get better.
MAKING IT BETTER
Stay indoors as much as you can. The best way to avoid sensitivities to tree pollen is not to be exposed in the first place.
Wash your hair before bedtime during allergy season. If you don’t, and you sleep with a pillow, you’re essentially plunging your face into pollen all night long.
Keep the windows tightly closed in your car and your house.
Wear a mask, sunglasses and a hat if you have to mow the lawn or do other yard work that could kick up more pollen.
Bathe or groom your pets at least once a week during allergy season to reduce the amount of pollen they carry into your home. In between baths wipe them down with a wet rag after they’ve been outside.
Get central air in your home. It is far superior to window units when it comes to blocking allergens.
House fans can worsen suffering since they blow pollen around your home.
OPTIONS FOR MEDICINE
Nasal steroids such as Flonase, Nasonex, Nasacort and Veramyst are the first line of defense. Steroids work to block the main pathway of allergic inflammation.
Antihistamines such as Claritin, Allegra and Zyrtec block histamines, a chemical released by your body to fight a perceived invader.
Leukotriene modifiers (pills) block a third pathway of allergic inflammation. Originally released as Singulair, they are now available as a generic.
“Disease-modifying” allergy shots, over time, can desensitize patients to the pollens making them miserable.
“Disease-modifying” sublingual immunotherapy tablets are new on the market. They include Oralair and GrassTech and try to make patients less allergic to grass pollen in the spring or ragweed in the fall. But, like shots, they carry the risk of side effects.