Monday, August 18, 2008

HEALTH FEATURE: Summer Allergy Miseries

(previously published here at

By: Heather Chin, The Bulletin

Don't think it's just you. It is not your imagination. Age has nothing to do with it. Things really are worse this year. Everyone is feeling the pressure.

Yes, this is a vintage year, maybe a historic year, for allergy miseries. Many of us are having just a little more trouble breathing. Our sinuses feel as though they are under attack. Coughing and sneezing and scratching incessantly at dry eyes seems to have become a more or less permanent condition.

Although observers described last year as an especially bad allergy season on the East Coast, with a mild winter and late growing season exacerbating already warm weather, 2008 is already providing even more frustrating conditions for allergy sufferers.

Tree pollen, mold and grass pollen were the most common, active pollen types in the Philadelphia area during June, with "very high" levels according to's Pollen Almanac, and mold allergens have dominated the scene through the first half of July.

Seasonal allergies are caused by airborne pollens, which are released from trees and grasses during pollination and reproduction. Beginning with the spring pollination of trees and the early summer introduction of grass particles, allergens trigger the strongest reactions in summer and early fall.

This year, "with the mild winter, the trees have been blooming earlier, and the first cases of allergy exacerbation started in early March," said Corinna Bowser, M.D., an allergist at Adult and Pediatric Asthma and Allergy, in Havertown, whose practice serves patients throughout the region. "The counts have been [especially] high because it hasn't been raining a lot and rain usually clears the air of allergens."

Dr. Bowser said she has observed an increase in reports of first-time allergy suffering by people in their 40s and 50s. Allergic reactions to outdoor allergens usually first present themselves in teenagers and those in their 20s.

The creation of a seemingly new group of allergy sufferers may be the result of more people reporting their allergies, rather than the development of new airborne issues, Dr. Bowser, who is also part of the teaching faculty at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, said. Either way, it can be excruciating for allergy sufferers.

"People who have had allergies for some time, but never bad enough to seek care [may be] finally pushed over the edge [to seek treatment] now that the counts have been higher and the effect has been worse."

There are other theories and possibilities being considered by asthma, allergy and immunology specialists, including the impact of climate change (warmer temperatures leading to higher pollen counts) and something called the hygiene hypothesis.

"Our super clean environment, perhaps, may actually put more people at added risk for developing allergies down the line," Dr. John Sundy, an allergy specialist at Duke University Medical Center, told a local television station. This risk would come not from too little hand-washing, but from a lack of early exposure to natural environments that include allergy triggers like pollen, dust and animal fur.

American Lung Association statistics indicate residents under age 18 and over age 65 living in the five-county Philadelphia area are at a high risk of developing everything from pediatric asthma to chronic bronchitis and CV disease to diabetes.

Common allergy triggers in Pennsylvania, as listed on, include alfalfa, honeysuckle, horse chestnut, poison sumac [leaves], post oak and prairie ragweed.

In addition to the typical plant-related allergens such as pollen and ragweed, atmospheric conditions such as ozone levels and levels of particulate matter also cause concern.

A recent German study suggests that pollution levels, especially those from vehicular-derived particles and aerosols, can increase the possibility of sensitivity to allergens.

Many options exist to aid allergy sufferers, ranging from asking doctors about allergy medications and antihistamines to timing outdoor activities to avoid early morning pollen saturation.

Heather Chin can be reached at

©The Evening Bulletin 2008

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