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Spring tree, flower blooms mark the start of allergy season

| Monday, April 11, 2011

This time of year, Nicole Cox, 31, of the South Side occasionally has to sleep sitting up because her eyes water so badly.

Kelly Frost, 34, of South Park had a specialist come to her home to help figure out ways to reduce the allergy symptoms of her 10-year-old son, Nathan.

"So far, the drastically changing weather has made his condition more severe," said Frost, 34, of South Park. "When the spring and summer weather is consistent, he feels much better."

Dan Palso uses a classic movie image to describe the effects of his seasonal allergies.

"Ever see that guy's face melt in 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'• That's what is happening to me now," said Palso, 30, of Pleasant Hills.

They are among the 35 million Americans who suffer from allergies, according to the National Institutes of Health. Pollen counts in Western Pennsylvania are not as high as they were at this time last year, but as Dr. Deborah Gentile said, "When you have allergies, every year is bad."

Gentile, director of research at Allegheny General Hospital's division of allergies and asthma, said readings at the hospital's pollen counter are low compared to last year, when numbers shot up early and stayed that way.

Friday's pollen count showed mold at 1,064 per cubic meter of air, a reading considered low. Tree pollen was at 54, or moderate. Grass and weeds were absent. The same day last year showed mold at 3,009; tree at 1,388; grass at 6; and weed at 4.

Gentile said a few warm days last month allowed trees to begin blooming, and more sensitive allergy sufferers might have seen early symptoms. That kind of gradual release makes for a long allergy season for people with moderate to high sensitivities, she said.

Warm weather has not come unusually early this year, said meteorologist Brad Rehak with the National Weather Service in Moon. Temperatures in March averaged 0.6 of a degree below normal.

"(Spring is) maybe coming on time," he said.

Pollen allergy, commonly called hay fever, is one of the most common chronic diseases in the United States, according to the NIH. Airborne allergens cause the most problems.

Symptoms of airborne allergies include sneezing, often with a runny or clogged nose; coughing and postnasal drip; itchy eyes, nose and throat; watering eyes; conjunctivitis; and dark circles under the eyes.

While it's not always easy to distinguish between allergies and a cold, doctors said, the itchy and watery eyes that accompany allergies are not typical symptoms of a cold.

"Typically, the symptoms of a common cold don't last longer than two weeks, while allergy symptoms tend to last much longer," said Dr. Andrej Petrov, director of allergy and clinical immunology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

"However, some patients with allergy symptoms can experience shorter duration of symptoms, and this can lead them to think that they may have a cold."

Most allergy medications no longer make users drowsy, said Gentile, who cited over-the-counter options including pills and sprays. Nasal steroids are an effective treatment, the doctor said, but allergy sufferers have to start taking them a week or two before the season starts.

Gentile said she has had patients as young as 2 show signs of seasonal allergies. She has seen an increase in the number of allergy sufferers in the past few years, though she said "no one knows for sure" why.

One theory attributes a decrease in the body's immunity to allergens because of an increase in the use of antibiotics and antibacterial products, she said.

Obesity can influence allergies because overweight people tend to have more allergens in their bloodstreams, Gentile said.

A standard treatment of allergies is avoidance, Petrov said. As allergy sufferers know, that's not always an option.

"It is very hard to avoid pollens, which are everywhere around us," Petrov said. "It is best to start taking medications one to two weeks before the start of allergy season and continue them through the end of allergy season."

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