Spring allergy season is here: How doctors say you can manage (is pollen really what gets you?)

Spring provides a feast for the senses, as we see the freshly green grass and budding trees, smell the flowers and savor the soothing breezes.

But many of us are paying a price, as allergies attack those very senses, leaving in their wake watery and itchy eyes, runny noses, and bodies racked by shuddering sneezes.

But allergy experts say there is hope through treatment and preventive measures, even as climate change and COVID-19 complicate matters.

In the Midwest, allergy season is broken down into segments: the tree pollen season that begins in March, the grass pollen season lasting from mid-May to June, and the ragweed or weed pollen season that begins in August and ends with the first hard frost of the year, usually in October or November.

Timing, then, is important in figuring out how to deal.

“When I talk with patients about my goals for them, I want them to be able to identify what they're actually sensitive to, because it may not necessarily be pollen,” said Dr. Zachary Rubin, a double board-certified pediatrician specializing in allergy and immunology with Oak Brook Allergists.

“So if somebody knows that they're allergic to tree pollen, then they know what time of the year their symptoms will get worse and they can modify their behavior so they have less symptoms,” said Rubin, a member of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

Rubin, who is on staff at Edward Hospital in Naperville, said more than 50 million Americans have some form of allergic disease.

If you're one of them and things seem worse this year, you're not wrong.

“It seems that every year it continually just gets worse,” Rubin said. “I don't usually think about this as ranking it from year to year. I feel that when I look at pollen counts, they're just continually rising. And you just hear from patients saying every year continually, 'Oh, my allergies are getting worse. This is the worst year yet.'”

What can allergy sufferers do to lessen their symptoms? Experts say keeping windows closed during the pollen season and running the air conditioner can help. Changing clothes and washing your body after being outside can prevent pollen from getting on your furniture or bed.

Dr. Noga Askenazi, an asthma and allergy specialist with Advanced Allergy and Asthma Associates in Elgin and Crystal Lake, said air room purifiers that have a High Efficiency Particulate Air, or HEPA, filter can be effective in picking up some allergens.

Those who suffer from dust mite allergies can use special covers on pillows and mattresses.

And it's important to remember that pets carry both pollens and dust mite allergens, the doctors say.

“So (when you're) nuzzling with them, it may not be a pet allergy, but it may be that there's a lot of exposure to the pollen and the dust mites that are on them,” Askenazi said. “So, they may also need to be washed a little more frequently, since they're outdoors.”

Behavior can only go so far, and that's where over-the-counter or prescription medications come into play. Recommended medications include Claritin, Zyrtec, Xyzal and Allegra.

You can also try “non-medications,” Rubin said, such as rinsing your sinuses out with a nasal saline rinse bottle or a nasal irrigation device, such as a neti pot, before bed. Nasal sprays also are available, such as Flonase and Nasacort, to help decrease inflammation.

Rubin recommends starting nasal sprays two to four weeks before allergy season.

Medicines don't work for everybody. Those allergy sufferers might want to turn to allergen immunotherapy — in other words, allergy shots.

“It is recommended monthly for three to five years by studies, until, we believe, many people's immune systems may have memory cells that will keep them less allergic and producing protective antibodies long term,” Askenazi said.

Complicating allergy season lately is climate change and COVID-19, experts say.

“With climate change, as temperatures rise every year steadily, there's more time during the year for pollen to be produced and distributed, which means there can be more plants that produce pollen for the next season,” Rubin said.

He said one study estimates that by 2100, 40% more pollen will be produced annually, while the pollen season will start as much as 40 days earlier than it does today.

While the pandemic kept people indoors more often, it also led to many first-time pet owners.

There is also the chance of mistaken identity.

“The omicron (COVID-19 variant) might be more easily mistaken if there is no fever, body aches or loss of smell, because those are telltale for a virus,” Askenazi said.

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