Conquering allergies: Physician discusses tips for long allergy seasons

A bed of flatweed grows in abundance in a Stevensville field. The edible perennial, also known as “false dandelion,” can be commonly found in lawns, roadsides and pastures and contributes to allergies. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

A bed of flatweed grows in abundance in a Stevensville field. The edible perennial, also known as “false dandelion,” can be commonly found in lawns, roadsides and pastures and contributes to allergies. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

It comes through the air. The itching, coughing and sneezing.

With the spread of pollen in the spring and changing of temperatures in the fall, millions of Americans continue to look for ways to counteract allergies.

Seasonal allergies, which affect about 30 percent of Americans, vary widely from year to year. With the amount of dust and dandelions that sweeps through the area every year, there are several myths that come with allergy season.

Dr. Stephen Bovenkerk, an ear, nose and throat physician at Lakeland Health, said this year’s allergy season has not been terribly unusual despite there being an early spring.

“In years past, if there is a very early spring, the allergy season tends to start earlier than normal,” Bovenkerk said. “We didn’t have so much of that this year. As unpredictable the weather can be, so can the allergy season. We do see typically more problems the warmer the weather is.”

Allergy seasons have several factors that affect its degree in severity.

As plants and vegetation bloom in the spring, people tend to have more problems with allergies. Bovenkerk said spring and fall have the most instances with allergy problems – spring has tree pollens and fall has weed pollens.

The season itself varies in consistency. Bovenkerk said it normally ends when a specific region gets its first frost. The temperature dropping below freezing toward late fall, when anything that blooms or pollinates dies off, signifies the end of a typical pollinating allergy season.

Summer rain can help reduce the amount of pollen floating through the air. Despite this, Bovenkerk said the more humid the atmosphere is, the higher chance there is for mold to develop.

“The thing to remember is mold can cause allergies as easily as pollen can,” Bovenkerk said. “Rain can decrease some type of allergens, but increase others.”

Theories and sniffles

Why are there so many reports stating the next allergy season is going to be even more harsh than the last?

A lot of speculation comes from a person’s breakdown in susceptibility to pollen through the years.

“I think as time goes by we have seen an increase in the incidents of allergies – especially by those who have not been affected previously,” Bovenkerk said. “The truth is, over time people become more sensitive to allergy symptoms. In most cases people will find things they are more sensitive to as time goes by.”

But it’s not so much the weather or the pollen that is the cause of the increase in allergies. While not proven, Bovenkerk and other nasal theorists believe noses and other airways are growing more sensitized to allergies.

Part of that is something called the “hygiene hypothesis.” The unproven theory states that by taking better care of one’s self and being cleaner, people are not desensitizing themselves to certain microbes.

“There are even more theories about whether being too clean increases the risk of certain illnesses, including allergies,” Bovenkerk said.

The usual suspects

Some of the biggest contributors to the allergy season in Southwest Michigan include ragweed and cottonwood.

The best advice Bovenkerk has is to completely avoid allergens when outdoors. Easy to say, harder to do. Bovenkerk says to use a mask to cover the mouth and nose for those who mow lawns or work in a garden on a daily basis.

“I often tell people to try not to track outdoor dust and dirt in the house as much as possible,” Bovenkerk said. “When you come inside, shed your clothes right away, take a shower so any pollen, dust or dirt isn’t getting tracked. Keep the windows closed as much as possible, which can be tricky in the summer.”

These practices prevent outside air from coming in. Beyond that, medication comes into play.

Nasal sprays come in handy over the counter. Certain people who don’t respond to prescriptions or even avoidance can be candidates through a process called desensitization. Bovenkerk calls it allergy therapy.

Through the body’s exposure to small and injected amounts of a specific allergen, in gradually increasing doses, a subject’s body builds an immunity to the allergen. The immune system responds to each dosage and is better able to fight off the allergies.

The process incorporates allergy shots or oral drops that have been penned as a sort of “allergy vaccine.”

“Most patients who test positive to allergies would be candidates,” Bovenkerk said. “It’s just a matter of if they’ve responded to more conservative treatments. To do allergy immunotherapy is quite a time commitment, so we usually don’t offer it unless the other treatments have not been successful.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Aug. 25, 2016)
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