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Early start to allergy season spells more misery, bay area doctors say

Dr. Mandel Sher, an allergist at Morton Plant-Mease, examines Luci Warren of Crystal Beach, who is exhibiting respiratory symptoms. Sensitive patients have symptoms now, he says.
Published Jan. 19, 2013

If you're not sniffling, sneezing, coughing or aching from a cold or the flu, chances are you know someone who is.

Also making the rounds is a nasty gastrointestinal bug that's disrupting lives and keeping people close to … ahem … home. And a few unfortunates are hacking from whooping cough, as new discoveries are being made about limits to vaccine effectiveness.

But wait, there's more.

It's only mid-January, but people who suffer from seasonal allergies are already getting pounded with pollen, mostly from oak trees. Area doctors say they are seeing an early start to allergy season, likely because of unseasonably warm temperatures. They don't expect the recent cooler weather to stop this trend.

"I started seeing patients, mostly asthmatics with allergy problems, in December," St. Petersburg allergist Mona Mangat said. Mangat has been watching pollen counts and patient visits creep up for weeks.

"With higher temperatures, trees can produce something called super pollens, more potent pollen, that is bad for allergy sufferers," she said.

In past years when winters were colder, the usual February tree pollen season was delayed until March, remembers Morton Plant-Mease allergist Mandel Sher.

"But I think, this year, tree pollen season is imminent,'' the Largo physician said. "The most sensitive patients have symptoms now. Everyone else with mild to moderate allergies is going to be symptomatic very soon."

Even though the familiar yellowish-green dust isn't blanketing cars and sidewalks yet, pollen is definitely all around us.

"Oh yes, it shows up in the air way before it covers the ground," St. Petersburg allergist Patrick Klemawesch said. He has a pollen counting machine at the practice he shares with his father Stephen. The counts help them confirm what some patients already are experiencing and let them know when to start people on preventive medications. As allergy sufferers know, the best relief is to be found not in the midst of a full-blown attack, but by taking steps before the immune system goes haywire.

"Under a microscope, we are counting higher numbers than we would expect at this time of year, 8 or 9 grains (of pollen) per millimeter where we would expect to see zero," he said. "For the last two years we didn't see these numbers until later in January."

Recent dry weather and daytime highs in the 80s combine to trick the trees.

"I think it has caught some people off guard," Mangat said. "They weren't expecting to be bothered by pollen this early and they may have gotten lax with their medications. I think it's going to be a longer than normal season."

Something is always blooming in Florida. The biggest allergy troublemakers include grasses, weeds, trees — oaks, in particular, but also cedar, cypress and some pines — and mold. Dust can also trigger flare ups, a problem during the holidays as we pull out boxes and decorations from storage and turn on long-dormant central heating systems for those occasional cold snaps.

As temperatures moderate, any pollen floating around outside finds its way indoors through open windows in cars and homes. We also bring pollen indoors on our shoes, clothing and pets. Many veterinarians suggest wiping paws and fur with baby wipes or a damp cloth before allowing Fluffy and Fido indoors, to prevent symptoms in humans and their animals.

These steps are particularly worth taking if you're already suffering from one of the other circulating bugs of the season. Allergies just make everything feel worse, says Dr. Richard Lockey, an allergy and immunology specialist with USF Health.

His clinics have been packed since early January. Many patients are weathering post-holiday upper respiratory infections.

"Families exchange germs when they get together, but there may be some pollen in those illnesses now," he said. "If you catch a cold and also suffer from seasonal allergies, the relatively small amounts of allergens in the air now will make your symptoms even worse."

Sneezing, itchy, watery eyes and nose, a scratchy throat and fatigue are common symptoms with viral infections and allergies. Knowing which you have can make a difference in treatment.

"Colds tend to go through stages," Sher said. "The symptoms start out mild, then worsen over several days and progress to include more symptoms like congestion, a bad sore throat, coughing, maybe a fever. Allergy symptoms pretty much stay where they are."

Mongat adds that viral infections are also more likely to produce a green or yellow discharge when you cough or blow your nose.

If you are a seasonal allergy sufferer, experts say it's definitely time to talk to your doctor about beginning daily preventive medications, such as steroid nasal sprays and inhalers, and to check supplies of over the counter antihistamines, decongestants and eye drops. Preventives are generally started two weeks before pollen season starts — and it already has begun for very sensitive patients.

"I was telling some patients to start in December and use (preventive measures) consistently every day," Mangat said. "Many of my seasonal allergy patients who are only sick in the spring, are already sick."

And no, an early start to the season doesn't mean an early end. Doctors say the worst should be over, as usual, by early May, depending on the weather.

Irene Maher can be reached at imaher@tampabay.com.

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