04/21/08 — Allergy season is taking its toll on sniffling sufferers this year

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Allergy season is taking its toll on sniffling sufferers this year

By Bonnie Edwards
Published in News on April 21, 2008 1:45 PM

Michelle Montgomery of Pikeville and her 6-year-old daughter, Abi, are among hundreds of patients flocking to doctors' offices this spring to take care of sniffles, sneezes and watery eyes.

The pair visited David Whitley Jr. at the Eastern Sinus and Allergy Center recently, where Mrs. Montgomery gets allergy shots twice a week to stave off reaction to everything from dogs and cats to grass. Her daughter comes whenever she is congested.

Abi was about 3 when she started seeing the specialist.

"Her ears kept clogging up and not draining right, and she couldn't hear us," her mother said. "She's on her fourth set of (ear) tubes now."

Mrs. Montgomery believes much of the allergy fever they experience can be attributed to the environment.

Her doctor agrees. The allergies flare up especially bad in the spring and fall, Whitley said.

"Spring is more traumatic because you can see the stuff. You see the pine pollen, but that is not what's causing it. Pine pollen is so heavy and thick it doesn't stay suspended in the air as long, and it falls to the ground," he said.

Even area family practitioners have full waiting rooms this time of year because of the pollens patients can't see.

Dr. Clark Gaither at Goldsboro Family Physicians Center said when the pine pollen is out, count on the others, also. He sees a lot of what he calls the "nasal salute," when a child rubs his nose with the palm of his hand so frequently it causes a crease across his nose. Typically, the family initially shrugs it off as a cold.

But if dark circles under itchy watery eyes are among the symptoms, especially if there is no fever, it's not a cold, Gaither said.

He and Whitley are not seeing any increases in the number of allergy cases this spring. It's always this busy, they say, because it's one of Wayne County's two allergy seasons, basically in the spring and fall.

When spring arrives, the allergies are usually not far behind -- caused by flowering trees and grasses like ragweed.

In Greenville, physicians do pollen counts. And, they say, when the pollen counts are higher, more people make a beeline to doctors' offices for a remedy.

Is there more pollen out there than usual?

Probably not, Gaither said.

"The increase in allergies could be coming from the new and novel chemicals that are made every day. They could cause symptoms. But pollens have been around as long as the planet has," he said.

But even if there was a higher pollen count out there, it would not matter, he said, because it doesn't take much to cause the body to have an allergic response. What causes the allergy is the body's response to what is out there -- not how much your senses encounter.

Unfortunately, patients are not going to fare any better during a wet season than a dry one, Gaither said. On those rainy days come plenty of other problems from allergens like rusts and molds. Fungus allergies also can have the same effect as the pollens.

Fall allergies also tend to hit people pretty hard in this area, Whitley said, attributing that to the beach and the fact that Wayne County is a low-lying area.

Being an agricultural area, allergies can also be heightened at that time of year by all of the decaying matter on the stalks during harvest time, he added.

"If you've had much rain, it's like the stuff that grows on bread. When the farmers are out there stirring it up, it can really bother you," he said.

For now, however, the dry pollens are the biggest culprits. And although the doctors are not seeing any increases in the number of patients over last year, it might feel like it's getting worse, simply because the same over-the-counter medications used the previous year aren't helping any more. So many patients will go to the doctor seeking something stronger.

Gaither recommends trying the over-the-counter medications first. He says it's best to start with an antihistamine. There are two kinds, traditional ones that make you drowsy (like Benadryl and Sudafed) and the non-traditional ones that don't (like Claritin and Zyrtec).

If they don't work, there are prescription versions like Allegra or Clarinex, which come in a combination with a decongestant and act as a drying agent.

Allergy symptoms can include itchy, watery eyes, sneezing, a runny nose with clear nasal secretions, irritating cough and congestion.

Asthma is also on the rise, Gaither says, shrugging off a cause for the shift.

What he does know is that allergies can happen at any age.

Some patients have worked on a farm pitching hay for 30 years with no problem, he said. Then one day, without reason, an allergy develops.

Why did it hit when it did?

Whitley said nobody knows.

"What gets blamed a lot is all the toxins we're exposed to, pesticides, chemicals, and people's immune systems are more sensitive to the allergens," he said. "And some medications, too, like beta blockers that doctors prescribe for people after a heart attack. People tend to have more allergy problems when they're on those. It's probably a combination of things.
We live in a very polluted environment."