Spring allergies strike early in Seattle

March 2, 2015 Kevin Dooms, MD

Is your house filled with people sneezing, sniffling or rubbing their red, watery eyes? If so, you or a family member may have “hay fever,” also known as “allergic rhinitis” or “allergic conjunctivitis.”  With the unseasonably warm weather, the spring pollen season has arrived especially early this year. 

Understanding the Pollen Count in Seattle

Pollen seasons and pollinating plants vary greatly among regions. Here in the Pacific Northwest we have two main pollen seasons: tree pollen (late February through April) and grass pollen (mid-May through early July). After July, we see virtually no pollen again until February. 

Alder and birch trees generate the majority of tree pollen in this area. We also see modest levels from other trees, such as cedar, maple and oak. Pollenating grass, such as Timothy, blue or orchard, cause allergies, too, especially in June when levels typically peak.

Because the wind disperses pollen, allergy symptoms are especially bad on warm breezy days. As a general rule, plants with flowers do not cause allergies. Flowering plants make trace amounts of pollen and rely on insects or birds to move it around.

In spite of what you might hear, the Pacific Northwest has very few outdoor mold spores. The local counting station is always on alert but seldom sees significant mold levels since our climate is generally cool. We also are fortunate not to have major outdoor allergens, such as cockroaches or ragweed, in this area.

Incidentally, pet dander and dust mites are commonly overlooked year-round allergies. No matter how much you pay for a cat or dog, there is no such thing as an allergy-free breed. Sorry.

Here's what you can do to deal with your allergies:

Allergy testing:
A board-certified allergist can help identify allergens through skin testing. Knowing your allergy profile can help you anticipate allergens and allergens seasons. Skin prick testing is often itchy, but seldom painful, and can yield reliable results in 15 minutes.

Most of the common treatments for environmental allergies are now available over the counter. Modern antihistamines, such as Allegra or Zyrtec, can provide relief for up to 24 hours with very low rates of sedation. Effective, anti-inflammatory nasal sprays, such as Nasacort and Flonase, are also available over the counter.

Allergy shots:
Allergists usually reserve shots for patients whose allergies make them feel miserable. In some cases, a patient cannot adequately avoid her allergens, or the medication isn’t helping enough. Allergy shots are a big investment (typically around 5 years), but patients can expect long-term results. Allergy shots are the most “natural” allergy treatment. Patients are slowly exposed to actual allergens, such as pet dander. Over time, the immune system becomes desensitized to allergens and no longer overreacts when it encounters allergens in nature.

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