Tree pollen kicks off Washington's allergy season

By Carolyn Butler
Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Ah, springtime in Washington, with its glorious weather and plethora of wide open green spaces, all the better for us to enjoy the blossoming trees, blooming flowers -- and the copious amounts of pollen that come along with them.

I don't know about you, but I have never lived in a place where people complain about their allergies more, whether it's a fellow grocery shopper lamenting that his symptoms have kicked in a month earlier than usual this year, or a friend bemoaning the fact that Claritin isn't cutting it for her anymore (and she can't get an appointment to see an allergist until June). Then again, perhaps it's just that I never paid attention to such griping in other geographic locales, because I never had allergies until I moved to our nation's capital -- yet another common refrain among my sniffling, sneezing compatriots.

So as I sit here next to my box of tissues, trying not to rub my red, watery eyes and dreading the mornings when my car will be covered in that distinctive golden green dust, I can't help but wonder whether there's any truth to the oft-cited local myth that Washington is the worst place in the country for allergy sufferers, particularly at this time of the year.

Not even close, it turns out -- at least according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America's annual "Spring Allergy Capitals" report, which was released Monday.

This year, Washington ranks 43rd out of the 100 most challenging places to live with allergies, well behind Knoxville, Tenn., which claimed the top spot, followed by Louisville, Chattanooga, Tenn., and Dayton, Ohio. The ranking analyzes three factors -- the amount of grass, tree and weed pollens and mold spores; patients' usage of allergy medicines; and the number of allergy specialists in an area -- and basically measures the quality of life for allergy sufferers.

Washington "does have a very high pollen count this time of year," says Mike Tringale, director of external affairs for the AAFA, which is based in Landover, even if it's not one of the worst on the 100-worst list.

In fact, Washington often has one of the highest pollen counts in the nation on any given day during the spring season, says Daniel Ein, a clinical professor of medicine and the director of the Allergy and Sinus Center at the George Washington University Medical Center. "It has to do with climate: the fact that we've got a very long growing season, an abundance of rain, in most years the proper amount of sun, and that it's very green here."

Ein goes on to explain that the major problem in this region is the huge volume of trees, including oak, cypress and maple, which typically pollinate from February to April.

"People get all worried about flowers and cherry blossoms, but while they come out at the same time you start to feel allergies, they're not really the culprits," says Derek Johnson, medical director of the Fairfax Allergy, Asthma and Sinus Clinic. "In this area, there are lots of [wind-pollinating] trees that make millions and millions of times the amount of excess pollen, release it into the air and say 'mother nature take it away,' " sometimes spreading as far as 400 miles from the original source.

Indeed, according to a study in last month's Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology that tracked pollen counts in this area between 1998 and 2007, tree pollen amounted to 91.2 percent of the total annual pollen yield here.

What makes things worse is that even before tree season ends, the grass pollens and even some early flowering weeds begin emerging in April, May and June.

"We have that double-whammy, overlapping allergy of tree and grass," says Gaithersburg allergist Jackie Eghrari-Sabet. She adds that the diverse array of vegetation here just below the Mason-Dixon line, and the fact that we live in "dust mite nirvana" -- yes, we've got that perennial allergen, too, which thrives in humidity, old houses and other features of our fair, built-on-marshland city -- can make life a misery for those with allergies.

And how about the popular notion that people move here and, a few years later, simply develop allergies out of thin air? Definitely a common story, say all the doctors I interviewed for this column, and there's certainly truth to it.

"Two, three, four years is the length of time it takes for people to get sensitized to things they are now exposed to," says Ein. "Often when you move anywhere, there is the 'allergic honeymoon,' which is a respite for a few years, until people become allergic to the new things they're breathing" and develop runny noses and other actual symptoms.

In addition, oftentimes someone relocates here from a place where there's not a huge presence of oak pollen, say, and then has a supercharged reaction to the enormous concentration of it here, says Johnson.

While some news reports have claimed that this is going to be a particularly bad spring for allergy sufferers -- pinning the blame on everything from global warming to our particularly snowy winter -- the Annals of Allergy study suggests the weather plays a very little role in the amount of pollen emitted by trees.

"Grass and weed pollen seem to correlate with maximum temperature and dew point, but tree pollens are just much more variable," says Ein, who nonetheless says that the tree pollen has hit earlier and heavier than usual so far this season. "We like to say 'yeah, there's been all this rain [this winter], the trees are going to pollinate like crazy,' but it doesn't hold up to scrutiny. It really depends on what comes next, and whether there's a lot of [spring] rain to wash the pollen from the air, so we'll see."

But whether you're still debating if all those sudden sniffles and sneezes are just a cold or are pollen-related, or if you are an allergy sufferer holding out hope that somehow this spring is going to take it easy on you, it may serve you well to be more proactive, says Eghrari-Sabet, rather than wait to see what happens with pollen counts.

Find a management regime that works for your particular allergy issues, whether by having an allergist test to find out which triggers may be causing your troubles; using over-the-counter or prescription drugs; or taking simple preventative measures such as keeping your windows closed at home and in the car, or washing your hair before you go to bed at night so that any accumulated pollen doesn't hit your pillow.

"Everyone always says this is going to be the worst year for allergies ever, but the thing is, it doesn't really matter," says Eghrari-Sabet, who also recommends taking preventative steps to eliminate dust mites from your home and allergy shots for those who are really suffering "No matter what kind of year it is, there is always more than enough pollen to go around and share here in Washington."

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