Texas has a special environment. It’s massive, and many countries could fit within it — a little more than one Spain or nearly three United Kingdoms or more than six Icelands. It’s in the top 10 flattest states of the U.S. And it’s hot — so hot that our warm winters create a cozy home for seasonal allergens to plague us year-round.
Allergic rhinitis, or inflammation of the nose by allergens, affected 20 million Americans in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In turn, those affected have to endure incessant sneezing, sore throat, itchy eyes, congestion, lethargy or a combination of the symptoms several weeks out of the year.
Pollen counts for ragweed have been high in Lewisville since early September up until Thursday, Oct. 19, returning to moderate as of today. Yesterday the Dallas area was in the top five highest pollen hot spots in the country, according to The Weather Channel.
“We’re pretty much battered year-round here in North Texas,” said Richard Lankow, who has a doctorate in plant pathology and plant biochemistry. Lankow prepares allergen extracts for allergists across the nation to use in treating patients with allergies.
Research indicates that people in general build-up their sensitivity to allergens up through early adulthood before it plateaus and then later drops off, Lankow said.
Fall brings us high ragweed pollen counts. While other areas get some relief in the winter due to freezes, Texans can get Cedar Fever, caused by mountain cedar trees, or Ashe juniper. With early spring comes other tree pollens and with late spring comes grass pollen. Grassy allergen production continues through the summer.
“Ragweed stops shedding pollen after there’s a good first frost,” Lankow said. “We have three different kinds of ragweed here.”
It’s a common misconception that the showier blooms are to blame, because plants are colorful to attract pollinators, said Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area education coordinator Lisa Cole. Seasonal allergens instead make use of the wind,
“Those things that are bright and flashy and really attractive, they are actually pollinated by insects, and those blooms are there to attract insects,” Cole said. “They’re not actually your allergy culprits. It’s those things that spread pollen in the air, like ragweed.”
Giant ragweed, or Ambrosia trifida, can be six, seven or even eight feet tall. It has a tri-lobed leaf that often gets confused for poison ivy or marijuana, Cole said. The plant flowers are green and insignificant, indicating its something pollinators don’t care about.
Cole said the weed is visible throughout the landscape at LLELA. While it not a high quality plant to us, it is a source of food that birds value.
Dr. Anil Nanda is an allergy and immunology specialist in Lewisville. He said pollen can travel hundreds of miles, which is why mountain cedar pollen is able to travel from Austin and San Antonio north to us.
“We say a couple of weeks before the season, start allergy medications and to continue it a couple of weeks after the season ends,” Nanda said. “But a lot of times that’s difficult because the season starts early or if you don’t have a freeze or anything like that, then the season is prolonged and continues.”
To get the maximum effect of allergy medications, Nanda said to take medication regularly as opposed to once in awhile. Nanda recommends those with allergies see a physician because over-the-counter medication can have a lot of side effects.
“Nose sprays can be addicting, so to speak, and if you use it too much, it can make your allergy symptoms worse,” he said. “You have antihistamine tablets — the Allegras, the Zyrtecs, those type of things — and it’s important to know a lot of those medicines can cause sleepiness.”
The medication that has a “D” in the name, such as Claritin-D, has pseudoephedrine, which is a decongestant, Nanda said.
“That can increase your heart rate and blood pressure, so that’s the problem with those,” he said. “As long as it doesn’t have that “D” part, the decongestant, it shouldn’t affect the heart rate or [cause] heart issues.”
There isn’t much evidence that people become immune to certain medications, Nanda said, but medication failing to work can be attributed to a strong pollen season or not having the right combination of medication. Some patients are eligible for allergy shots, which desensitizes the body to the effects of allergens.
“It almost works like a vaccine the allergy shots,” Nanda said. “What it does is it modulates the immune system so you’re less allergic on exposure to the pollens as opposed to medicines, which are just a Band-Aid for the allergy symptoms.”
Allergy shots, or allergy immunotherapy, uses a build-up process that could take three to five years. Patients start with a weekly low-dose injection, which eventually becomes a biweekly injection before it becomes a shot that is administered every three weeks then every month.
Nanda said his practice recommends going to the office to have the injections administered due to the risk of allergic reaction.
“It’s for people that medications don’t help as much as they would like and also for people who don’t like taking medicine. The goal of allergy shots is so you need less medicine for your allergies,” he said.
The injections are usually covered by insurance companies, Nanda said, otherwise the serum can cost over $1,000.
“The expensive part of the allergy shots is the serum we make,” he said. “But that serum itself lasts usually for a whole year, and after that it’s not as expensive, because we don’t have to make up as much of the serum.”
Scientists are researching and devising allergy drops and tablets that work like the injections, Nanda said. They are also researching the effects of homeopathic and natural remedies to allergies, but so far there’s no scientific evidence that local honey helps alleviate symptoms.
“That’s something that we’ll hopefully learn more about as further research comes out,” Nanda said in regards to consuming local honey for allergies. “If something helps a patient and doesn’t cause any harm or anything, go for it.”
Nanda said there are two components that play into allergies.
“There’s a genetic component. Usually if your family members have allergies, your parents have allergies, you’re more likely to get them, but there’s also an environmental component in terms of where you live, what you’re exposed to,” he said.
While there’s two components determining the likelihood of a person’s allergies, scientists don’t know the interplay between the two or why people get allergic rhinitis, Nanda said.
Lankow said the issue may exist because of our modern lifestyle, citing what is called the hygiene hypothesis. This hypothesis describes cleanliness as the cause.
“Because we are so clean and we raise our kids in such clean environments and we’re always wiping things down with Clorox and Lysol that our immune systems tend to overreact,” he said. “When you think about it, there’s no reason in the world that pollen from an oak tree should make us sick.”
Another factor that plays into how people react to seasonal allergies is air quality and pollution, Lankow said. In urban areas, allergens tend to be higher.
“For instance, diesel puts out little fine particles into the air and allergens from the pollen can actually stick to pollution particles and then that gets deeper within the patient’s’ lungs,” Lankow said. “That can really make allergies worse or increase their sensitivity to different allergens.”
One way those suffering from allergies can ease symptoms is by controlling their environment, Nanda said.
“It’s as simple as just closing your windows to keep from being exposed to too much pollen outdoors when you’re inside the home, even showering when you come home to get some of the pollen off of you during high pollen days,” he said.
Other environmental controls include changing your clothes after coming indoors, washing sheets and covers, changing filters on central air systems regularly, and bathing pets that go outdoors.
To check daily pollen counts, Lewisville Texans can go to www.weather.com and use the allergy tracker.