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Oklahoma City Ranks 18th for Seasonal Allergies in the U.S.

Ah, springtime. Flowers are budding, trees are blooming and grass is growing. Of course, if you're one of the millions of people who have seasonal allergies, it also means sneezing, congestion, itchy and swollen eyes, a runny nose and other annoying symptoms. Seasonal allergies can make you miserable and are nothing to sneeze at (sorry).

Lest you think we are a city of whiners — Oklahomans really do have it worse than most when it comes to suffering during allergy season. In fact, this year Oklahoma City is ranked 18th in the nation for "Most Challenging Places to Live with Spring Allergies," according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.

What is the culprit for Oklahoma City having a bad allergy season? We often have a longer-than-most pollen season because our winters are relatively short and mild, which means trees pollinate early. So, pollen becomes active as early as February.

Our dry and windy weather conditions don't help matters, either. It's rain that helps wash pollen off the trees. This means when it's dry outside pollen stays in the air, and then wind can transport pollen from hundreds of miles away (Thanks, Texas). In fact, trees cause the majority of allergies in Oklahoma, with Oak, Mulberry and Hackberry being the main offenders.

If you're suffering right now, you're probably allergic to tree pollen. Soon, when the weather gets a warmer, grass pollen will cause problems, followed by ragweed pollen in the fall. And don't forget, mold spores can be a problem throughout the entire year. If you want to track the actual count of pollen and mold every day in Oklahoma City, the American Association of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology has a nifty tracker.

So what's a sufferer to do? Before you give up and lay AstroTurf on you lawn, we talked to Dr. S. Christopher Shadid for his advice to keep seasonal allergies under control.

So, what exactly are allergies, anyway?

Allergies are caused by "hypersensitivity" of the immune system to something in the environment. This is typically a plant or tree or weed or may even be food or latex. This is mediated by the immune system, when an immune cell binds with an “allergen” (also known as a foreign substance), which then triggers a reaction. This reaction is typically driven by a chemical called histamine (thus “antihistamine” medications).

An allergy happens when this process gets blown out of proportion. When you encounter an allergen for the first time you typically will not experience allergy-like symptoms. Your body will generate special cells (think of these as specialized military troops) that are waiting for a second chance at this foreign substance. When they get that second chance (or third chance, or fourth chance) they cause such an uproar that you become symptomatic. This typically will present itself as itching, a runny nose, sneezing, coughing and/or a rash, but can be as severe as respiratory arrest.

Are things like food allergies different from the kinds of allergies that people suffer during certain seasons?

Yes and no. They are different in that they are from a different source, but for the most part they can cause the same issues. You can get a rash or respiratory issues (or other symptoms) from both foodborne and environmental allergies.

What kinds of things do you recommend patients can do for themselves to mitigate allergies?

The number one best way to take care of allergies is to simply avoid whatever makes you allergic. Sounds simple, right? But also difficult — if you are allergic to grass it's going to be difficult to avoid contact. Moral of the story: if you have severe allergies, the best thing you can do is find out exactly what you are allergic to! This is most easily done with allergy testing. You can be tested for environmental allergies (mold, pollen, etc.) and also can be tested for food allergies.

What over-the-counter medications do you recommend for spring allergies, and what are their differences?

Everyone is different, so talking to your doctor is important, but I have a "trifecta" (if you will) that I advise for most of my patients. This includes three things: an antihistamine,  steroid nasal spray and an expectorant.

  • Antihistamines (such as claritin, allegra, zyrtec or benadryl) - all block the “histamine reaction," which is the typical inflammatory reaction that takes place in allergic situations.
  • Steroid nasal spray (such as flonase, nasacort or nasonex) - using a nasal spray is THE best thing you can do for sinus issues. Doing so will decrease inflammation in the sinuses and slow down mucus production. Also, these now have a new FDA indication for itchy, allergic eyes, too. (Note: it's important to keep in mind that people typically use nasal sprays incorrectly by snorting them and swallowing all the medicine. But this medicine does you no good in your stomach, so remember to gently inhale the medicine to keep it in your sinus cavity).
  • Expectorant (guaifenesin, aka mucinex) - this is my favorite thing for mucus in the chest. It's  a "mucolytic,” which means it breaks up mucus, so it's easier to cough it out and get it out of your lungs.

Now, keep in mind this trifecta is my favorite over-the-counter remedy. There are certainly prescription medicines that are even better to help control these issues, but you'll need to see a doctor for them. Two that come to mind are steroids and singulair.

When should a patient see a physician for spring allergies?

It is important to seek physician advice if you need to find out what you are allergic to, or if your allergies cannot be controlled with over-the-counter medications. Sometimes what we think are allergies may actually be a sinus infection or bronchitis or even pneumonia.

If you have symptoms such as fever, chills and sweats, severe headache and facial pain with thick, discolored mucus, or if your symptoms last more than 10 to 14 days, and are not controlled by over-the-counter meds, these are not likely allergic in nature.

It is also very important to recognize when allergies are becoming so severe that they are causing respiratory symptoms. If you are having difficulty breathing, or if you have the feeling of your throat closing, you should seek emergency medical care.

What kind of medical treatments can patients expect from their doctor?

There are many ways to treat allergies. Most commonly, we do allergy testing to help with avoiding the allergen, along with medications, or even weekly allergy shots, to help desensitize you to the particular allergen to which you are allergic.

Finally, here are some common sense ways to help make springtime a little less painful for allergy sufferers:

  • Stay indoors as much as possible on dry, windy days, and days forecasted to have a high pollen count. It's best to stay indoors between 5 a.m. and 10 a.m., when allergens tend to peak. The best time to go outside is after a good rain when pollen is cleared from the air.
  • If the forecast calls for a high pollen count, take allergy medications before your symptoms start.
  • Remove clothes you've worn outside and shower right after to rinse pollen from your skin and hair.
  • Avoid airborne pollen by keeping windows closed at all times.
  • Don't hang laundry outside because pollen can stick to sheets and towels.
  • Wear a pollen mask when working outside.
  • Use high-efficiency filters with your air conditioning and change them regularly.
  • Use a dehumidifier to keep indoor air dry.
  • Clean floors often with a vacuum cleaner that has a HEPA filter.