Local

Fog of pollen torments PNW allergy sufferers on sunny days

A shake of a cluster of Alder catkins releases a cloud of pollen on Feb. 28, 2005. Alder pollen is among the worst of the pollen producers for those who suffer from allergies.
A shake of a cluster of Alder catkins releases a cloud of pollen on Feb. 28, 2005. Alder pollen is among the worst of the pollen producers for those who suffer from allergies. The Bellingham Herald

The source of your misery is attacking from above, infiltrating your home and seeping into your sinuses.

Yes, allergy sufferers, we’re in the thick of tree-pollen season.

Blame your sneezing, wheezing and snot-dripping on the Northwest’s tallest vegetation, which has been coaxed by warm, dry weather to pepper us with pollen bombs from above.

Pollen counts this week have fluctuated between moderate and high, with Thursday, April 7, being the warmest day yet. “It’ll probably be pretty rough, especially if it gets breezy,” said Dr. Frank Virant of the Northwest Asthma and Allergy Center.

For people with breathing problems, it can be a troublesome time.

“Younger individuals with poorly controlled asthma, people with other baseline respiratory issues … those are groups that are prone to having issues when pollen counts are high,” said Dr. Nilesh Shah of Northwest ENT (Ear, Nose and Throat) Associates.

Birch, cedar and juniper are causing the most trouble now, Virant said, but grasses and weeds will take over as chief irritators next month. Luckily, those are at your feet and produce much less pollen.

“Trees are much worse – the sheer level of pollen, and it’s obviously starting above you like a fog,” he said.

What causes allergic reactions?

Marion Pepper, an assistant professor in the University of Washington’s immunology department, said people have allergic reactions because their bodies’ adaptive immune systems have developed a memory that causes them to rapidly build up a defense.

That’s good when an infectious disease is trying to invade, but not when it’s a harmless allergen.

Generally, if you’re allergic to one thing … you’re actually allergic to multiple things.

Marion Pepper, assistant professor, University of Washington’s immunology department

“That memory response leads to this massive activation of cells, and that leads to symptoms of allergic asthma, skin allergies or pollen allergies,” Pepper said. “We all get exposed to these allergens. It’s not really understood why some people have a higher propensity to respond than others.”

Genetics and environment are believed to contribute, she said. And the misery comes en masse: “Generally, if you’re allergic to one thing … you’re actually allergic to multiple things,” Pepper said.

Medicines can provide some relief. Antihistamines block the body from responding to the threat of attack from allergens, Virant said. Nasal steroids block inflammation and can reduce symptoms.

Immunotherapy, usually through a series of shots, can help someone build a tolerance to allergens, Virant said. Although the process can take only a few months to start helping, it can take three to five years to complete treatment.

Shah encouraged sufferers to steer clear of pollen when levels are high.

“Avoid spending as much time outside,” he said, particularly during midday when allergens are most active.

Steps to help

Perhaps ban Fluffy from the bed, too.

“Pets are often transmitters of allergens. It’s a good idea to clean off their feet every so often and try to bathe them once a week. That will diminish the amount of pollen indoors,” he said.

Shah also suggested keeping allergens out of the house by washing hands when coming inside and having separate shoes to wear only indoors.

And yet – cleanliness could be what got us here in the first place. Some researchers have posed a “hygiene hypothesis,” suggesting our cells are fighting pollen in the absence of truly harmful things, such as parasites, that our forebears encountered more often than we do (germy cellphones and keyboards notwithstanding).

If your eyes or nose feel like Snoqualmie Falls right now, it wouldn’t hurt to wish for a rain shower.

“Rain tends to clear the air,” Virant said.

Unfortunately, long-term weather trends are only expected to exacerbate some people’s pollen problems.

A federal government report issued Monday said global warming would lead to longer allergy seasons – not to mention diseases and heat-wave-related deaths.

Serena Chung, an associate research professor studying air quality at Washington State University, was part of a team that modeled the effects of a warmer climate on pollen.

“It’s getting warmer in the future and for many plant species the pollen season will start earlier,” Chung said.

  Comments