Allergy sufferers feel it when weather, vegetation change

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KINGMAN - Dean Colvig isn't looking forward to how he's going to feel this fall.

Colvig, who is special program administrator for Kingman Academy of Learning, is expecting an onslaught of pesky symptoms in August, when allergies intensify again. Colvig unexpectedly escaped the spring allergy season, which was difficult again this year.

Usually, he begins experiencing itchy eyes, sneezing, sniffing and a runny nose by March, with his symptoms continuing through May. But this year, for some unknown reason, he hasn't had any problems - yet.

"I'm holding my breath about the fall," said Colvig, whose major allergen is Russian thistle. "Last year, I had to get a shot because the symptoms were so bad. I try not to do anything about them unless I just can't stand it. I've tried all the pills and sprays, and they don't work for me."

Colvig doesn't suffer alone. The hot weather in Kingman this past week is finally drying up the flow of spring allergy symptoms for now, but residents can expect a resurgence of those irritating symptoms this fall.

And they're dreading it.

Dr. Natarajan Asokan, who operates Trinity Allergy Asthma and Immunology Care in Kingman, said spring allergies begin in late December and end in May, and are dominated by tree pollen. Asokan is an allergist and immunologist who also has offices in Bullhead City and Lake Havasu City.

Trees depend on the wind for transferring pollen from tree to tree, said Asokan, and because the wind is an inefficient transfer agent, the trees make large amounts to pollen to compensate. With heavy winds, which are common here, allergy sufferers who are allergic to tree pollen suffer the most from respiratory allergy and asthma issues.

Asokan said heavy rainfall and warm winters make the difference in the severity of the allergy season.

"Every allergy office typically sees more patients during every spring and fall," said Asokan. "I would not characterize this spring any different from rest of the springs. Patients typically complain of worsening of nasal allergy symptoms such as sneezing, itchy nostrils and eyes, stuffiness and congestion of the nostrils, and postnasal drip. "Those with asthmatic tendencies also complain of worsening of asthma symptoms such as cough, wheezing or difficulty breathing. Those with skin allergies have flare-ups of itching and rash. I have seen patients presenting with hives for the first time because of exposure to pollen."

Arizona, unlike the Midwest, does not have true four seasons, said Asokan. That means some type of tree, weed or grass is blooming in Arizona all the time. Typically following the monsoons, weeds growing in large numbers dominate the fall season. Bermuda grass, which is the most common type of grass here, has a long season that starts in April and finishes in September.

But for now, allergy sufferers are getting a reprieve as the days grow hotter.

Michael Kipp, a physician's assistant with Doctors Express Urgent Care in Phoenix, said he was surprised at the severity of allergy symptoms this spring. The urgent care clinic saw a one-third increase in the number of patients with upper respiratory infections, sinusitis and chest congestion this spring, he said.

"I think allergies have calmed down some since it has heated up over the past 10 days," said Kipp. "Once the weather gets this warm, we don't see as many complaints. Right now, there's noticeably less."

According to pollen.com, an allergy is a heightened sensitivity to a foreign substance that causes the body's immune system to overreact when defending itself. The immune system of an allergic person mistakenly considers allergens to be an invading agent and attacks them.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration estimates that about 36 million Americans suffer from seasonal allergies. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, nasal allergies are estimated to affect about 50 million people in the U.S., and the prevalence of allergies is increasing. It affects as many as 30 percent of adults and 40 percent of children, the foundation noted.

In 2010, Americans with allergic rhinitis spent about $17.5 billion on health related costs, lost more than 6 million work and school days, and made 16 million visits to their doctor.

While many people believe that moving to Arizona's dry climate will calm their allergies, that's not necessarily true. According to the Arizona Cooperative Extension at the University of Arizona, the state used to be a haven for sufferers but now has many allergens, especially in the spring when the wildflowers and desert bloom.

Also, noted the extension, most of these allergens are the result of introduced plant species that are not native to Arizona. Plant species that are insect-pollinated are generally non-allergenic, but as more people bring wind-pollinated plants with them, Arizona's allergens grow.

A number of trees, grasses and weeds flower during the summer in Arizona and can still cause discomfort among allergy sufferers.

Scott Kern, director of development at Kingman Regional Medical Center, said his spring allergies also run from March through May, with sneezing, scratchy eyes and itchy ears. Although his allergies haven't been as bad this year compared to previous years, he had to purchase over-the-counter medicine to keep symptoms at bay.

"My allergies will pick back up again this fall, and I'll have to deal with them again," said Kern, noting most of his symptoms have subsided because of the heat. "They are more of a nuisance than anything else. I don't know how bad they will be yet. It's going to depend on the wind and the monsoons."

Asokan said it is important for allergy sufferers to know exactly what they're allergic to so that they can take precautionary measures to avoid exposure to them. He said allergy sufferers, in general, could be helped in three ways to cut down on symptoms.

Those are allergen avoidance, the regular use of allergy and asthma medications, and in some patients who are very allergic and where allergen avoidance is difficult or impossible, allergy injections containing pollen and animal dander could be very useful.

Allergy medications help relieve symptoms for the time being, said Asokan, but they do not help treat underlying allergic diseases. Allergy injections, though not a cure, could help improve the quality of life for sufferers, prevent complications such as sinus and ear infections, and reduce the need for allergy medications.

Terri Porter, clinic administrator at Doctors Express Urgent Care, said her clinic offers several tips to cut down on allergy symptoms. They include using antihistamines, installing HEPA filters, avoiding anything that causes an allergic reaction, staying indoors when it is windy, and showering and changing clothes immediately after being outdoors.

"This was a very severe allergy season for us," said Porter, noting she expects more of the same this fall. "It was the worst I've ever seen. As for future allergy seasons, who knows how bad they'll be. We've come to a point where we can't predict the weather anymore, so we'll just have to wait and see."