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Everyone loves these mild, flu-free winters, but Houston’s already experiencing one of the downsides: an early allergy season.
With pollen counts soaring and allergists reporting earlier-than-usual complaints, local officials are warning Houstonians to brace for a long season of runny noses, itchy eyes and sneezing.
“It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” says City Forester Victor Cordova.
It got worse Monday with 1,796 tree pollen grains per cubic meter measured at the city’s laboratory near Hermann Park, the year’s first day of “extremely heavy” activity. The high count followed mostly “heavy” levels that have circulated since the start of February, at least a month before the season typically starts in earnest.
The heavy pollen levels have kept allergy doctors busier than usual this winter. Dr. Amber Luong, an immunologist at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, says some of her patients complained of allergy symptoms as far back as late January, an unheard of time for sufferers.
An estimated 20 percent of the population seeks treatment for airborne allergies, which occur when the immune system recognizes harmless substances such as pollen as an enemy, dilating blood vessels and inflaming sinus and respiratory tracts.
Experts attribute the active early season to February’s lack of a freeze and 60.1 degree average temperature, nearly five degrees warmer than normal. In such warm weather, trees sprout leaves early and begin pollinating.
“We’re seeing early pollination of trees like oak, elm and ash,” says Dr. Madhu Narra, a Baylor College of Medicine professor of medicine. “Because they’re able to pollinate early, this could be a bad allergy season. Definitely, the duration of the season will be prolonged.”
The high count is occurring even though the drought robbed Houston of 50 percent of its pine trees, one of the most prolific producers of pollen.
Narra said he expects grass, too, to begin pollinating early if the current warm weather and rain patterns continue. Houston’s allergy seasons are typically driven by trees in the spring, grass in the summer and ragweed in the fall.
Houston ranks in 40s
Longer allergy seasons are a national phenomenon, according to Angel Waldron, spokeswoman for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. She said that over the past decade, the season’s duration in much of the United States has gradually increased, from a mid-March start and mid-May end to a late February start and early June end.
Houston will place in the 40s in the foundation’s annual rankings of the spring allergy capitals for 2012, to be released later this month, Waldron said. The Top 10, already released, features Texas cities McAllen at No. 2 and San Antonio at No. 9. Knoxville, Tenn., is No. 1.
This is the first season since the antihistamine Allegra became available over the counter. Luong says the most promising advance in the field is an immunotherapy drug, approved in Europe and in trials in the United States, that the patient takes under the tongue instead of by injection. This is a cheaper and more convenient method that will open treatment to millions of people who currently don’t see a doctor for their disorder.
In the meantime, doctors advise knowing the source of your allergy, limiting time outside when counts are high and doing daily sinus rinses to wash out pollutants.
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