A case of sniffles? Allergist blames hardwoods
by DELANEY WALKER, Banner Staff Writer
Apr 25, 2013 | 1434 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Pollen Pool
AREA RESIDENTS who are struggling through another long pollen season with sniffles, coughs and sinus headaches can blame a handful of culprits, but one is Southeast Tennessee’s large variety of hardwood trees. Here, the yellow-green of Cleveland pollen can be found pouring through this downspout during one of last week’s rainfalls. Banner photo, DONNA KAYLOR
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Runny noses, itchy eyes and sinus headaches plague the young and old, tall and small alike in Southeast Tennessee — and Dr. Robert Younger has a good explanation for why.

Younger, an American Board of Allergy and Immunology certified allergist, said much of spring’s pollen is due to hardwood trees.

“We have a very lush, green altitude and rainfall, but the other thing that makes it tough is we have a very long pollen season,” Younger said. “If you go up to New England, they’ve got a lot of hardwood trees, but [their season] is really short.”

“So we have long seasons,” Younger continued, “extreme density of hardwood trees, which produce pollen people are used to, and our pollen seasons merge and cross over.”

Summer pollution also makes it difficult for individuals already susceptible to allergic reactions.

“It only takes one pollen in your eyes or nose, if you are allergic, to trigger your symptoms,” Younger said. “The more allergic you are, the more active your symptoms and the more severe [they are].”

Huffington Post published an article earlier this month listing Chattanooga as the third-worst place for springtime allergies. Last year, Chattanooga was only No. 7 on the list.

A list of variables are looked at to rank the top 11 worst cities for allergies.

“For example, if you have high pollen counts — which we are world class here — then you get more points for that,” Younger said. “If there is a relatively low frequency of board-certified allergists per geographical area and per population, then you get more points for having limited access to allergy/asthma specialists.”

He said the Chattanooga area’s high score is probably due to a mixture of pollution, access to allergy/asthma specialists and pollens.

Allergy season is often linked with spring, but studies show pollen can come as early as February.

“Tree pollens are distinctly seasonal. The first allergy-producing pollens begin in mid-February. The first one is cedar and shortly after that, long before you see any leaf on any tree, the hardwoods begin to release pollen in, typically, late February,” Younger said. “The hardwood tree pollens are not finished until early June. We’ve got a big variety. Typically, what you might think of as the northern hardwoods, like Maple and Oak, will be out in March and then more southern types of trees, like Hickory and Willow, are more prominent in April while the northern ones are still out.”

Continued Younger, “Then there are the last ones, like Mulberry, which is the only one you can actually see a flower on.”

Aside from tree pollen, grass, weed and mold contribute to pollen levels.

“Grass pollen is variable year-round. The highest grass pollen counts are May and June,” Younger said. “The common nonflowering weeds that contribute to pollen pretty much follow the grass season. These are the weeds in your yards and the ones along the road.”

Younger said Ragweed comes out as the length of sunshine per day diminishes in mid- to late-August. Grass and weed pollen effects are lost after the first winter freeze.

According to Pollen.com, a National Allergy Forecast website, the pollen count for Cleveland today and tomorrow is in the medium to high range.

“The pollen count represents the numbers of pollen on average in a cubic meter of air, which is a geometric volume, during the past 24 hours,” Younger said. “... The way the device works — it is actually a glass rod set in a spinning device and you can control the duration of time.”

“It will come on for 30 seconds and the pollen will stick to it. It will do that every hour.”

As the pollen count increases, the amount of time is shortened. Otherwise, the stick will collect too much pollen. Younger said the process, “takes some finesse.”

A blue stain is applied to the rod to identify the pollens. The pollens are then counted per a specific area. Younger said the amount is then calculated to create the day’s pollen count.

“There is a lot of science to [the process],” Younger said. “Where you place the pollen counter makes a difference, as well.”

He suggested several practical ways to cut down on pollen intake.

First, leave all home and car windows closed. This will lower the indoor pollen count.

Second, if you are noticeably affected by pollen take a nondrowsy antihistamine before being exposed. Younger described it as putting on sunscreen before receiving a sunburn.

“Take it right after waking up,” Younger said. “The three over-the-counter drugs are Claritin, Allegra and Zyrtec. For some people, one will work better than the other.”

Third, use eye drops with ketotefen as the primary ingredient.

“You can use it twice daily. You can use it and wear contact lenses, but you should wait 10 minutes before putting your lens in,” Younger said. “That allows the preservatives to clear out so it won’t form deposits in the lens.”

He said individuals who experience a significant impairment to their daily life, despite the three steps, should seek medical help. Specifically, from a board-certified allergist.

“It is not necessary to suffer. The idea it is going to go away and get better next year is unlikely. It is going to be as bad next year,” Younger said. “By nature, they do not go away. By nature they get worse.”

“When they get worse, they lead to chronic allergies. All of that is controllable.”

Continued Younger, “When we get a child with moderate to severe allergies around the preschool or early school-age years, we give them everything we’ve got, which includes desensitizing allergy shots. Those children are half as likely to develop asthma.”

“Even 10 years after they are discharged; it’s disease modifying. It is cure-like treatment. Those allergy shots have advanced so much in the last 15 years.”

Pollen fragments also cause irritation. Younger said these pieces tend to stay airborne longer. He described them as being like little, weightless, hollow Wiffle balls. They are microscopic at 1 1/2 to 2 times the size of a white blood cell.

“You don’t have to be allergic for it to irritate you,” Younger said. “Extreme pollen counts can irritate the eyes, irritate the nostrils, even if you don’t have allergies. There is just so much dust. It is dust pollution.”

Younger is a practicing allergist in the Cleveland and Chattanooga area with The Allergy Asthma Group.