Washington, D.C., can be a tough place to live if you suffer from seasonal allergies.
By Julie Kinzer
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Allergy season has come early to Washington, D.C., with a sneezing vengeance thanks to unusually warm weather in March and April.
That fine green dust on your car and deck is a warning sign that tree pollen has risen to high levels.
Pollen levels spiked the first week of April in Washington. Tree pollen levels usually average around 250 grains of pollen per cubic meter, but this spring, levels have been as high as 1,499 per cubic meter according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
“It’s a wonderful place to be an allergist,” said Dr. Kenneth R. Bergman of the Family Allergy Center of Virginia in Centerville, Va.
Bergman, who has been in practice for more than 20 years, said the area can be a challenging place to live if you have allergies. His office has seen lots of runny noses and watery eyes this spring, but he said things are actually better than they were a year ago when pollen levels skyrocketed.
“Last season, which was a colder and harsher winter, had one of the most severe allergy seasons I’ve seen since I came here,” he said. “I think the reason was all of the trees were very delayed so they came out all at once instead of sequentially, and it made for a much higher pollen count and much more misery.”
According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, more than 50 million Americans suffer from allergies.
Kathy Buek, 34, moved to the Washington area from Houston, Texas, a decade ago. When she first arrived, her allergies weren’t too bad. But the past few years, the high pollen count has really been getting to her.
“It just seems like my allergies have gotten worse over time,” she said. “Now I pretty much have allergies year round. I have asthma, too, so they interact with each other.”
Buek discovered she had allergies in her early 20s when she went to college in North Carolina.
“Whenever I went back home to Houston I felt horrible,” she said.
Pollen levels in the Washington area start rising either late in February, as they did this year, or in early March, as they did last year, Bergman said. The pollen season extends to mid-May and arrives with both the early-blooming trees and the late-blooming trees. Pollen formation peaks early on followed by a short reprieve. Then the late trees come and produce heavier pollen, Bergman said.
“The late trees include oak pollen, which is the major pollen in Virginia. It puts tremendous amounts of pollen in the air,” he said. “It produces a lot of symptoms for allergy sufferers. Birch pollen, maple pollen are early. Oak pollen is later. So the first big wave of pollen in this area is the tree pollen, which is the most important seasonal allergy.”
Oak trees bloom in late April or early May, Bergman said. Then, around June, as the tree pollen tails off, the grass pollen peaks.
Outside of a visit to the doctor, good remedies are over-the-counter medications such as Claritin, Zyrtec and Allegra, Bergman said. He warned, however, about medications with decongestants.
“They are effective, but they can be very dangerous because they cause elevated blood pressure and elevated heart rate, which makes it difficult to sleep,” he said. “I don’t use a lot of it. I kind of stay away from the decongestant products.”
Bergman said the most effective way to help control allergies is to get an allergy shot.
“Allergy shots are actually a preventative measure and work like shots for the flu or anything else,” he said. “We give a shot of the actual pollen itself that the patient is allergic to. What it does is it builds up a blocking antibody in the body that blocks the allergy. … It’s the only treatment that you can cure allergies with.”