Gurney's Inn
April 11, 2007

Allergy Hell: The Worst of Times

Weather conditions over the past winter, coupled with what appears to be a warm spring, could create a "Perfect Storm" for allergy sufferers, experts say.

Westhampton Beach psychologist Dr. Nancy Vermont knows it's allergy season by the misery: "My eyes are running, I have horrible sinus headaches, and I have a scratchy throat. It is very annoying. Especially if you get a bad sinus headache — it clearly hinders your workday."

Yes, allergy season is upon us, and based on all the predictions, it's going to be a bad one.

According to John F. Byrne, M.D. of East End Allergy and Asthma Care, P.C. in Riverhead, "There are many factors that will determine the likelihood of a bad allergy season, but in general, a wet fall, then a mild winter, followed by the sudden onset of a very warm spring, may help bring about a heavy pollen season."

And based on this year's mild weather conditions, pollen counts are expected to soar to an all-time high.

The season, he explained, begins with the release of tree pollen in the spring, followed by grass pollen in the summer, and weed pollens in the fall.

"Tree season's going to be very bad," said Dr. Paul Ehrlich, of NYU Medical Center, who also has a home in Amagansett.

On the East End, said Ehrlich, the preponderance of privet and trees poses a predicament for allergy sufferers.

According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, an allergy is characterized by an overreaction of the human immune system to a foreign protein substance, or allergen, that is eaten, breathed into the lungs, injected or touched. This immune overreaction can result in coughing, sneezing, itchy eyes, runny nose and a scratchy throat. And, in severe cases, it can also result in rashes, hives, lower blood pressure, difficulty breathing, asthma attacks and even death.

The bad news? There are no cures for allergies. But there is hope: Allergies can be managed with proper prevention and treatment.

Allergies are on the rise in America, with an estimated 50 million, or one in five, Americans suffering from all types of allergies. Approximately 75 percent of all allergy sufferers have indoor/outdoor allergies as their primary allergy, with the most common indoor/outdoor allergy triggers consisting of trees, grass and weed pollen, mold spores, dust mite and cockroach allergen, and cat, dog and rodent dander.

Beyond the annoyance and sheer misery factor, allergies cost an estimated $7 billion annually, adult allergies or hay fever, the fifth leading chronic disease and a major cause of work absenteeism.

But there are some tips for allergy sufferers to make the bad times more bearable: Ehrlich recommends that runners avoid running early in the morning or late in the afternoon, between 5 and 7 p.m., when trees pollinate most heavily.

And, suggests Ehrlich, running on the beach is a good solution. "All the offshore breezes will keep the pollen away."

Parents whose kids have allergies, said Ehrlich, should change their clothes and launder them as soon as they return home from school; hair should be washed immediately, too. "They're loaded with pollen."

Ehrlich pointed out that many allergens blow onto the East End from up to 300 miles away.

Dr. Byrne offers some general recommendations including keeping the windows closed at night to keep pollens out, avoiding outdoor activities between 6 and 10 a.m. when counts tend to be higher, keeping track of local pollen counts and avoiding outdoor activities on particularly heavy pollen days, and of taking physician-prescribed medications.

There are several "very effective medications which can prevent and treat symptoms," said Byrne. "If these measures fail to control symptoms adequately, then allergen immunotherapy should be considered, which is a treatment that involves gradual exposure to increasing amounts of allergen resulting in desensitization."

Larry Penny, director of natural resources for East Hampton Town, recounted a story illustrating that when it comes to allergies, anything is possible.

Penny told the story of a town employee whose allergies were so severe, she was contemplating an operation to clear her sinuses.

The employee, whose office is in the old military Lamb building, got the shock of her life when the leaky ceiling was removed to reveal "six inches of mice feces, plus 17 dead mice — all about five feet above her head, from where she had been sitting."

Fecal matter aside, Penny said as far as pollen, the heart of the pollen season won't be upon us until the end of April or the first week of May.

On the East End, allergies are sparked by a bevy of bountiful trees, including oaks and hickories. "The worst are pitch pines," he said, characterized by yellow pollen that coats the tops of puddles by the side of the road and common in the Pine Barrens.

The flowers, he said, bloom in waves; as the end of summer nears, goldenrods and astors spark the sneezing, with ragweed, the number one pollen produced in the United States, a chief offender.

Allergens can also be blown in by ocean breezes; tick bites can cause an allergic reaction in some unlucky sufferers.

Key dates? April 15, May 15, August 15 and September 15, said Penny, are days to dread.

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