Ahhh, Spring! After a winter riddled with colds and flu, let’s step outdoors and greet the…. Ahhh-CHOO!
Allergy season is here. For many families, Dr. Kenneth Schuberth is the go-to expert on pediatric allergies. Dr. Schuberth kindly shared with me some information on local triggers and tips for staying ahead of symptoms.
Peak of the pollens
April and early May are a difficult time for allergy sufferers in the Baltimore area. Tree pollen is problematic from March until the end of May and Dr. Schuberth notes that the number one allergy-inducing local pollen is oak. You’ll know it by the green-yellow powder coating cars, playgrounds and patio furniture. Oak pollen catkins (or “caterpillars,” per my kiddos) pile up, and puffs of dust swirl around tree-lined roads. Other common tree pollens include maple, beech and birch.
Molds also can induce allergies in spring, particularly if there is a wet, rainy May. Mid-spring brings grass allergies (lawn grass and Timothy hay), then in September and October, the weed pollens (ragweed, etc.) stir up trouble, as well as mold among damp dead leaves. After a good, solid freeze, they are finally eliminated.
Tracking pollen count
Dr. Schuberth suggests knowing the local pollen count, which can be found online at pollen.com. Input your zip code and you can see how bad the pollen allergens will be in your area on that day. That way, you can be better prepared to avoid exposure or head off symptoms before they are debilitating.
Pollen counts are highest in the morning, though pollen does linger in the air. Dry spells do not prevent pollen production and a good rain can help rinse pollen off surfaces and keep it down. The tradeoff is that rain can increase allergy symptoms for people allergic to molds, grass and weeds.
Onset in children
Allergies in kids appear according to what they have the earliest and most frequent exposure to, according to Dr. Schuberth. Food allergies appear first, then indoor allergies, such as dust mites and molds. Acquiring pollen allergies takes longer because exposure is more gradual. Those often surface by about age 3 or 4. Symptoms may appear as nasal irritation, itchy eyes and itchy skin.
The genetic lottery
There are four types of allergies that can be inherited: asthma, nasal inhalant, food allergies and eczema. Dr. Schuberth says if you have one of the four, you are more likely to have another. Parents can pass down a higher tendency to have allergies, but not necessarily which ones. For example, a parent may have a grass allergy, and the child might develop eczema. A child with one allergic parent predicts a 1/3 chance of that child having an allergy. Having two allergic parents presents a 2/3 chance of the child having allergies.
Fun fact: If parents are allergic to dogs, it may actually be advisable for them to get a dog to raise with their children, as it helps build tolerance and can prevent allergies in kids.
Moving on or kicking in
In early childhood, boys are twice as likely as girls to have allergies. However, just as those boys outgrow their allergies, allergies may begin appearing in the girls. As adults, women are actually twice as likely as men to have allergies.
When local pollens are your triggers and you move to another town where those irritants aren’t present, the lack of exposure will eliminate those reactions. Dr. Schuberth notes that there is a “honeymoon period” after moving to a new environment, when the local pollens do not yet cause irritation. Over time, however, you may develop new sensitivities.
Prevention at home
Avoiding exposure to pollen outdoors is tough, but indoors there are some precautions you can take on high pollen days. Keeping windows closed, not drying laundry on a clothesline and using air purifiers can be helpful. Dr. Schuberth advises allergy sufferers to wash their faces and hands immediately upon entering their homes, or even better, to shower and change clothes after being outdoors. Family dogs may also bring pollens in on their coats, so consider wiping them down after they’ve been outside.
Many patients swear by alternative remedies like plant-based natural medicines and acupuncture. Dr. Schuberth doesn’t discount that they work for some people, but there isn’t always data to support the results. If any treatment helps you feel more in charge of your health, that empowerment can yield positive results, he says. Taking a daily spoonful of local honey to acclimate to area pollens is a common holistic approach. However, the pollens bees collect come from flowering plants, not from the trees that cause most of the allergies, Dr. Schuberth says.
Over-the-counter allergy medicines can be effective and safe for kids as young as 3. Non-drowsy antihistamines like Claritin, nasal sprays like FloNase and eye drops like Zaditor are helpful (as are more affordable generics). At night, a small dose of Benadryl may relieve symptoms and improve sleeping. If you know you will be exposed to an allergen, treat proactively rather than reactively. Taking Claritin daily during prime pollen season, for example, will be far more effective than playing catch-up to relieve the symptoms after exposure.
When to ask a specialist
If avoidance and over-the-counter medicines fail to control the symptoms, it’s time to seek consultation and testing to devise a management plan. The final step for some folks may be to get allergy shots. Fear not: Dr. Schuberth says they use the tiniest, least painful needles in the office.
The frequency of shots varies. Initially they may be weekly, then two weeks apart, three weeks apart, etc., for a total of three to four years. The good news is that most people achieve long-term remission.
Then you can save that stockpile of tissues for next winter’s colds.