Spring Sneezing in the Scenic City

Learn how you can breathe easy in the nation’s sixth-worst city for seasonal allergies.  

With winter drawing to a close, you may be more than ready to trade snowflakes for saplings. But with the abundance of Chattanooga’s budding trees comes dreaded seasonal allergies.

While Chattanooga is particularly picturesque in the springtime, its beauty causes misery for those who suffer from allergies. In fact, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), our city has repeatedly been rated one of the “Most Challenging Places to Live with Spring Allergies.” If you suffer from allergies, here’s what you need to know to make it through spring without discomfort.

By Olivia Harlow

 

Seasonal Allergies: What are they really? 

Todd A. Levin, M.D. Pediatric and Adult Allergist and Immunologist, Chattanooga Allergy Clinic

Todd A. Levin, M.D.
Pediatric and Adult Allergist and Immunologist, Chattanooga Allergy Clinic

Symptoms of allergic rhinitis – commonly referred to as seasonal allergies or hay fever – include sneezing, coughing, congestion, and itchiness of the nose, throat, and/or mouth. All of these can be brought on by either pollen (tree, grass, weed) or mold.

Seasonal allergies can occur during any seasonal transition, but spring is one of the most problematic times for sufferers in Chattanooga. Along with the flowers sprouting up in early spring comes budding trees producing tons of airborne pollen. This is followed by an array of seasonal allergy-inducing grasses in late spring and early summer.

In our area, pollinating trees such as oak, elm, walnut, hickory, and sycamore are abundant, so it’s no surprise that the spring months are heavy hitters locally. “Tree allergies will start in mid-March and peak in mid-March to early April, continuing into May,” says Dr. Todd Levin, a pediatric and adult allergist and immunologist with Chattanooga Allergy Clinic. “Then we start to get grass pollen in mid-to-late April through June.”

Molds are tiny fungi found almost anywhere, including soil, plants, and rotting wood. Their spores also float in the air, and the numbers of these decaying bacteria increase as temperatures rise in the spring.

Combine tree and grass pollen with Chattanooga’s molding piles of wet fallen leaves left over from autumn, and the inevitable happens: the eyes water, the nose runs, and the sneezing doesn’t stop.

 

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What’s making me miserable?

Allergic reactions are triggered by airborne pollens and/or mold spores entering the body through the eyes, nose, or throat. In people with seasonal allergies, the immune system overreacts to these particles and treats them as foreign bodies or
invaders.

If your immune system recognizes pollen or mold spores as foreign bodies, it will produce antibodies called Immunoglobin E to fight them off. This starts an allergic cascade leading to the release of chemicals – such as the inflammatory histamine – into your bloodstream. This release is what causes your symptoms.

 

Why Chattanooga Ranks High:

Being in a central part of our country, Tennessee is a meeting place for various pollen types. Memphis was ranked the second worst city in the U.S. for spring allergies in 2014, but at number six, Chattanooga wasn’t far behind.

Not only are the allergens in our area abundant, but they also endure. This is because Chattanooga has a long growing season, making the allergy period equally long-lasting.

The list of worst places to live for those with seasonal allergies reveals that the majority of allergy-swelled areas are in the South. Specifically, mountainous areas in the South undergo spring’s allergenic impact, due to the large population of pollinating trees.

Other factors include environmental and weather patterns, such as temperature, wind, humidity, and air pollution. Pollen travels more efficiently in warm, windy weather – much like the climate we experience in Chattanooga.

 

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How to find relief: 

Avoiding allergens

Susan P. Raschal, D.O. Pediatric and Adult Allergist and Immunologist, Covenant Allergy and Asthma Care

Susan P. Raschal, D.O.
Pediatric and Adult Allergist and Immunologist, Covenant Allergy and Asthma Care

Packing your bags and moving away isn’t your answer, as those who are allergy-prone will likely experience some form of allergy anywhere.

Learning what triggers your allergies and how to personally combat them is your best line of defense. Here are some tips to try.

Stay inside. If you can, avoid the outdoors on dry, windy days. Wind carries allergens through the air, and the lack of humidity when wind is most violent means there’s nothing to slow pollen’s journey to your nostrils.

Wait until evening. “Pollen counts are greatest in the early mornings. If you exercise outside, the best time to do so is at dusk,” explains Dr. Levin. And, according to Dr. Susan Raschal, a pediatric and adult allergist and immunologist with Covenant Allergy and Asthma Care, it’s best to avoid the outdoors between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on days when pollen counts are high.

Avoid yardwork. While you may want to take your allergy frustrations out on the lawn by getting rid of grass with your lawnmower, it’s best to limit yard work or designate an allergy-free friend or family member for lawn duty. Yard work stirs up allergens from grass, especially in the early morning. If you must do the yard work, consider wearing a dust mask.

Brush it off. “Be sure to take off your shoes before you come inside, so you don’t track in pollen,” suggests Dr. Raschal. She also recommends wiping off your pets’ fur before they come inside, so they don’t carry in pollen.

Keep it out. Once you’re indoors, remember to keep the air conditioning on and  the windows closed to ensure dry, clean air.

 

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Remedies 

Michael C. Hollie, M.D. Adult and Pediatric Allergist and Immunologist, The Allergy & Asthma Group

Michael C. Hollie, M.D.
Adult and Pediatric Allergist and Immunologist, The Allergy & Asthma Group

While seasonal allergies aren’t curable, symptoms can be alleviated. By checking the forecast and knowing when pollen counts will be at their peak, you can plan accordingly
and take medication before allergic reactions have a chance to kick in.

According to the Mayo Clinic, popular over-the-counter oral antihistamines, decongestants, and nasal sprays have been known to ease allergy systems. “Typically, antihistamines are the first line of medication to treat allergies,” says Dr. Michael Hollie, an adult and pediatric allergist and immunologist with The Allergy & Asthma Group. “They work better if you can use them ahead of your symptoms, starting them ahead of pollen season.” He adds that antihistamines are typically effective for anyone with seasonal or year-round allergies, including children. In addition, rinsing your sinuses with saline solution can help immensely.

If reducing exposure to triggers and taking over-the-counter drugs doesn’t seem to help, a doctor – preferably an allergist – can lead you to relief. Skin and blood tests can be performed to determine your specific allergy triggers. Doctors may prescribe stronger antihistamines, prescription-strength nasal spray, or even recommend allergy shots.

“The best thing to do is to find out what you’re allergic to, and learn to predict when your symptoms are going to be the worst. Then if there is a bigger problem, it can be treated with immunotherapy,” says Dr. Levin.

The common use of allergy shots is actually a form of allergen immunotherapy. More commonly known as desensitization therapy, allergen immunotherapy is aimed at patients who still have symptoms after trying first-line options. This treatment increases doses of allergens – such as pollens, tree grasses, weeds, molds, dust mites, or pets – in hopes of eventually building a tolerance. Eventually, desensitization therapy reduces the immune system’s reaction.

According to Dr. Hollie, the advantages of allergy shots include reaching the underlying issue and eventually completely eliminating it. The disadvantages, however, include the inconvenience (shots are initially administered once a week for about a year) and the possibility of mild side effects. “If this doesn’t work for you, there is now rush immunotherapy, which provides multiple shots to quickly build up the resistance,” Dr. Hollie says.

 

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Nature’s Cure 

If you’re interested in trying mother nature’s more natural solutions, the flowering herb known as butterbur could potentially be as effective as antihistamines, without the drowsiness and fatigue that sometimes come with them. In addition, Dr. Raschal notes that quercetin, a plant flavanoid found in wine and many fruits and vegetables, may help block the release of histamines that cause allergic reactions. “People use many other supplements to treat allergies, such as grape seed extract, vitamin C, and honey,” Dr. Raschal says. “However, research hasn’t found definitive evidence that they help.”

The food you eat can also naturally impact your body’s reaction to allergens. For example, the theory behind spicy food is true: the spicier, the better. Experts claim that spicy foods have the ability to thin mucus secretions and clear nasal passages. Bring on the cayenne pepper, ginger, and garlic!

Though spring allergy season is just around the corner for some Chattanoogans, suffering isn’t inevitable. By following the tips above and taking proper precautions all season long, you may find relief quicker than you can say “achoo!