Ragweed and No Rain? Stand By for Sniffling

For fall allergies, weather is key to how much you'll suffer

FRIDAY, Sept. 28, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Pity the poor golden rod.

People see it blossoming along America's roadways this time of year and run for cover. Or at least grab a box of tissues.

It's allergy season, after all, and for many people golden rod sightings signal that the sneezing, sniffling and itchy eyes of spring have returned for their fall encore.

But golden rod generally isn't the culprit. Rather it's a harbinger of other more potent pollinating plants, says Dr. Jerry Shier, a Maryland allergist and assistant clinical professor at George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.

Plants like lamb's-quarters, cocklebur, plantain, sorrel, pigweed and mugwort are the prime suspects in the fall, he says.

And, of course, ragweed.

"Clearly, ragweed is the most potent of all the [fall] allergens," Shier says. "It gets all the press because there's just more of it than the others."

"We've been in the ragweed season since mid-August" because that's when fall starts from an allergist's standpoint, he says. "Fall pollens are really late-summer pollens."

True fall -- those chillier, more blustery days after temperatures have dipped to a hard freeze -- bring a different range of allergy problems, Shier says. Then, molds and dust mites supplant pollens as the troublemakers.

"Dust mites, believe it or not, peak in the fall," he says. Though a year-round problem, the generally higher humidity of late-summer months spurs their growth, he says. And once the leaves start coming down, molds, which thrive indoors throughout the year, move up the list of outdoor irritants, as well, he says.

Pollen-related allergies alone affect about 10 percent of the American population, or some 26 million people, not including those with asthma, says the National Institutes of Health. And such allergies prompt nearly 17 million visits to doctors' offices every year, reports the National Center for Health Statistics.

How much people suffer, however, seems to depend on the weather, and thus varies widely from place to place.

"A lot of rain followed by a lot of dryness is a perfect setup for a lot of misery," says Shier, a board member for the Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America's Maryland-Greater Washington, D.C., chapter and incoming president of the Washington, D.C., Allergy Society.

"Mostly it depends on the rain. If there's a lot of rain, pollen does not get the opportunity to stay in the air a long time" he says.

The true gauge of an allergy season is "not how bad the pollen is, but how bad the patient suffers." he says.

Dr. Frank Graziano, an allergist and immunologist who teaches at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine, says the actual allergic reaction "is really something that's fairly benign," usually lasting two to three weeks, "but for some people it's just terribly debilitating."

"It feels like you have the flu," complete with nasal congestion, watery eyes and general aches, Graziano says. And that puts a damper on people's quality of life, affects workers' productivity and "takes a high economic toll" because of the millions of people affected each year, he says.

But some blame for the suffering apparently involves whether you live in the city or the country.

Research from the U.S. Department of Agriculture has shown that urban dwellers face a higher risk of contacting ragweed than those who live in more wide-open spaces. Ragweed flourishes in areas of higher pollution, especially from vehicle exhausts, and that same pollution may increase people's sensitivity to ragweed, the researchers say.

What To Do

Don't wait until you're all clogged up or your eyes turn red and itchy to act, Shier says. Instead, he suggests some preventive maneuvers:

  • "Do good environmental control," he says. That means keeping windows closed and using an air conditioner to prevent outdoor pollens and molds from circulating indoors.
  • Keep the humidity level low inside your house, either through air conditioning or dehumidifiers. Dust mites and molds thrive in higher humidity.
  • Shower at night. That way, he says you'll wash off the pollen your body has collected during the day, and you won't bring it into your bed.
  • Limit your time outside if you're especially sensitive -- "but that's never the goal," Shier says. "The goal is to try to give you the most normal lifestyle."

"You don't have to suffer," he says. "There are plenty of over-the-counter and prescription medications available." Products available without a doctor's prescription can effectively control nasal symptoms, though he says they also can cause excessive drying and possibly sedation. Prescription medications tend not to be sedating and last longer, he says.

And Graziano, who heads a program on new treatment directions for the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, suggests that itchy, watery, red and swollen eyes be treated separately from the nose.

"Most of the stuff that you treat the runny nose with -- the nasal steroids, the antihistamines -- probably doesn't treat the eye. The eye is like its own separate thing," he says.

He recommends eye drops. "Over-the-counter [drops] may work, but they may sting and only help transiently. A lot of the prescription stuff that's out there now is probably better. It doesn't sting as much, and you don't have to put it in as often," Graziano says.

For more about airborne allergies, from pollen to molds and dust mites, visit the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

And to learn about allergy testing and treatment, check the Mayo Clinic.

SOURCES: Interviews with Jerry Shier, M.D., allergist, Silver Spring and Rockville, Md., assistant clinical professor, George Washington University School of Medicine, Washington, D.C., and member, board of trustees, Maryland-Greater Washington, D.C., chapter, Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America; Frank Graziano, M.D., Ph.D., allergist and immunologist, professor of medicine, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine, Madison, Wis., and chairman, Occular Allergy Compass Program, American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology
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