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Feeling allergy symptoms? Blame Hurricane Irma, some doctors say

Piles of yard debris like this one from Hurricane Irma can become laden with mold and other environmental triggers and can "heighten allergic symptoms," said Dr. Farzanna S. Haffizulla, assistant dean for community and global health at Nova Southeastern University in South Florida. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

Published Oct. 5, 2017

Allergies out of whack?

You can blame Hurricane Irma for that. Well, kind of.

As many continue to wait for cleanup crews to haul away the sopping piles of withering tree debris in front of their houses from Irma, plenty of people across Tampa Bay are sniffling and coughing more than they were before the hurricane passed, narrowly sparing the region from the worst of its wrath.

"I've been telling my patients that it seems like Irma brought the allergy season on a little earlier," said Dr. Rachel Dawkins, a pediatrician at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg. "We usually see the peak of it in the fall at the end of October and into November, when the trees start shedding their leaves. But right now we have a lot of trees on the ground, which means we have a lot of pollen on the ground, and there's an uptick of mold from standing water."

TO YOUR HEALTH: Keep track of trends and new developments that affect you. Visit the Times health page.

Autumn is the second-worst time of year for allergic reactions in Florida, following the spring blooming season, said Dr. Richard Lockey, a Joy McCann Culverhouse Chair in allergy and immunology at the University of South Florida's College of Medicine. Ragweed and mold are the most common sources of allergies in the fall weather, though prolonged grass and pollen often play a role at the end of summer as the season changes.

"We live in a sub-tropical climate, which means we have mold all year round and allergies will be a problem year round," Lockey said. "I'm not sure we can blame the hurricane for the high pollen count right now, it happens every fall. This is just the time of year when weeds are pollinating. But maybe there's more mold this year because of the rainy, humid summer we had."

That long rainy season has butted up against a very active hurricane season this year, which created a slightly unusual, highly concentrated period for pollen and mold that could make just about anyone itchy and sneezy, explained Dr. Juan Guarderas, who specializes in allergy and immunology at the University of Florida.

"It's a combination of factors. The grass grew in a remarkable way from the rainy summer, then all of a sudden these hurricanes stirred everything down. Then a high-pressure system moved into the area, bringing the dry weather with it," Guarderas said. "So now, all that pollen from the grass is in the air in a very significant way. Added to that, we have a higher concentration of mold, especially of a kind called Alternaria, which grows very well in leaves, plants and fruit."

Weather patterns do tend to have an effect on environmental allergies, especially in Florida where mold and pollen are so common, said Dr. Farzanna S. Haffizulla, assistant dean for community and global health at Nova Southeastern University in South Florida.

"Various mold spores, pollen and other particles are aerosolized after severe weather and cause persistent exposure with associated symptoms," she said. "Post hurricane, abundant piles of debris from trees and plants becoming laden with mold and other environmental triggers will heighten allergic symptoms."

Whether or not Irma is the sole culprit of our watery eyes and stuffed up noses, doctors agree that pollen and mold counts are quite high right now, and lingering tree limbs and leaves on the ground aren't helping.

So the professionals recommend staying inside, especially in the early morning hours when pollen is at its peak.

"Avoid exercising early in the morning, especially on dry, windy days," Guarderas said. "Run your air conditioner inside and close your windows, in your car too. The dry air is beautiful and fresh, but you invite pollen in with the windows down."

Also, be sure to take a shower before going to bed to remove any lingering pollen from your hair or body, added Dawkins.

If you can't sleep at night because of allergies, be sure to try some over-the-counter decongestion and antihistamine medications, Lokey said. If you have asthma or worsening conditions, see a doctor.

"The most important thing you can do is diagnose what you're allergic to," Guarderas said. "It's hard to create a strategy of prevention if you don't know what it is that's bothering you."

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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