The hills and mountains that surround our city are incredible to look at, but they come at a price: they’re a perfect storm for allergy sufferers. Here, we outline which allergens tend to cause the most trouble this time of year, and three critical methods for finding relief.
By Julianne Hale
Spring Allergen 1
Tree Pollen | Begins in February and peaks in March and April
The trees that make our city such a feast for the eyes also make it a menace to the sinuses. Come February, an enormous variety of trees begin to release their microscopic pollen into the air. “Chattanooga has more species of pollinating trees than almost anywhere in the world,” says Dr. Marc Cromie, allergist with Chattanooga Allergy Clinic.
Combine this excess of trees with our valley location (which tends to trap pollen) and a long and mild winter, and pollen counts can reach well into the thousands come spring.
Speaking of pollen counts: we’ve all heard our newscasters discuss them, but does anyone really know what they mean? The pollen count represents the number of pollen grains held in a cubic meter of air (think: a square box that could fit a standard size washer and dryer). A count of 120 is considered heavy and can make your allergies go crazy. By April in Chattanooga, pollen counts can reach 4,000.
Spring Allergen 2
Mold Spores | Year-round, but peak during moist seasons like spring
If you sneeze in the spring, you probably blame pollen. Yet this time of year the culprit may actually be mold spores. “Symptoms are similar, making it difficult to differentiate between them without testing,” says Dr. Michael Hollie, allergist with The Allergy and Asthma Group.
As opposed to the mold growing on the cheese in your refrigerator, this mold grows in wet, dark spaces outdoors and indoors – from under the pile of leaves in your backyard to the dark corners of your basement and bathroom cabinets. Some mold spores are carried through the air by wind, while others spread via fog or humidity. “Like pollen, mold spores are aerosolized,” says Dr. Susan Raschal, allergist with Covenant Allergy and Asthma Care.
Since mold spores love moisture, heavy spring rains contribute to excessive counts in March and April. “In springtime, mold spore counts can easily reach the 400 to 1,000 range,” says Dr. Cromie.
Spring Allergen 3
Grass Pollen | Begins in late April and continues through early July
Grass pollen is one of the most common allergies in the United States, affecting between 30 and 60 million Americans. Most people who are allergic to one species of grass are allergic to several species, because grasses tend to have similar protein structures. If your body recognizes one protein structure as an allergen, chances are it will perceive these similar structures as enemies too.
The good news is, grass pollen season tends to be shorter and less severe than tree pollen season. “Although potent allergens, summer grasses don’t pollinate as heavily,” says Dr. Cromie. “So people who suffer from seasonal allergies tend to get a break in the warmer months.”
If you suffer from sneezing, congestion, and itchy, watery eyes each spring, start by avoiding pollens that trigger your symptoms. “Avoidance is the cornerstone of all allergy treatment,” says Dr. Hollie.
At the height of the season, minimize time spent outdoors during peak pollen times. Exercise common sense inside your home too, by keeping windows shut and vacuuming regularly. Remember: microscopic pollens can cling to practically anything. “The problem with pollen is
that it attaches to our clothing and pets’ coats, causing us to inadvertently bring it inside,” says Dr. Raschal.
Keep your car in the garage if you have one and make sure to wipe your feet when going in and out of your home. Invest in a HEPA filter and keep your pets well groomed, brushing them off before they come inside.
If you find yourself sneezing and coughing this summer, look for ways to avoid contact with grass pollen. You can start by hiring someone (or convincing your spouse) to mow your lawn. If you must do it yourself, wear a mask and keep the grass short. Make sure to keep your house cool and clean and wash your clothes, sheets, and pets frequently.
If avoidance isn’t enough to relieve your symptoms, consider adding an over-the-counter (OTC) allergy medication to your treatment regimen. OTC allergy meds can go a long way towards relieving symptoms.
Steroid nasal sprays, such as Nasacort, can significantly relieve nasal congestion. Just be sure to use the medication as instructed to avoid side effects. For example, you’ll want to point it away from your nasal septum in order to avoid a bloody nose.
OTC antihistamines – such as Claritin, Zyrtec, and Allegra – work by calming down your body’s immune reaction to allergens. Antihistamines are staples when it comes to OTC allergy meds. Just be sure to opt for non-drowsy options during the day.
Oral decongestants, like Sudafed, can also relieve nasal congestion. However, these are better for temporary relief during peak symptoms, as opposed to ongoing use, since the active ingredient has a few problematic side effects. For example, if you suffer from high blood pressure or health problems, you should avoid decongestants because they work by constricting blood vessels and can increase blood pressure and resting heart rate.
Seeing an Allergist
Do you, despite every effort, still spend April and May in a snot-filled haze, stocking up on Kleenex and Sudafed? Do yourself a favor and make an appointment with an allergist. Allergists spend their professional lives making people with allergies feel better. Rather than stocking up on OTC medications with no end in sight, why not work alongside a professional to develop a long-term plan?
On your first visit, your allergist will discuss your allergy history and schedule an allergy skin prick test and/or blood tests to determine your sensitivities. “Your allergist will test for reactions to everything from tree, grass, and weed pollens to molds, dust mites, and dog and cat allergens,” says Dr. Hollie. “Skin testing is very effective and accurate in determining a person’s problem allergens.”
Using this information, your allergist will create a customized treatment plan for symptom relief. Most plans include immunotherapy, otherwise known as allergy shots. Made with purified extracts of your problem allergens, immunotherapy changes the way your body reacts to perceived threats. “By far, allergy shots are the most effective long-term treatment option for seasonal allergies, and they are all natural,” says Dr. Raschal. “In children and young adults, they can even prevent the development of asthma.”
Spring is one of the most beautiful times in Chattanooga and it would be a shame to miss out on it because of allergies. If you want to brave the outdoors during the height of the pollen season, take steps today to cope. A customized treatment plan can keep symptoms at bay during this year’s allergy season and for years to come.