Spring flowers can get a bad rap when it comes to the season of itchy, watery eyes and exacerbated asthma, but biologists from Eastern Washington University and Washington State University say it’s mostly wind pollinators to blame for allergy season. Unfortunately, wind pollinators translate to trees and grass, so the outdoors will continue to be a minefield for allergy sufferers.
“For the most part, the things that people have in their yard, the beautiful flowers that we see, in terms of allergies those aren’t really drivers of allergies,” said Robin O’Quinn, EWU associate professor of biology. “Things that have big, bright, showy flowers are attracting animal pollinators for the most part.”
O’Quinn said some people do have specific flower-related allergies, but for most, it’s the pollen carried on the wind causing their symptoms.
By their very design, wind pollinators cause more problems, said Andrew McCubbin, associate professor of biological sciences at WSU.
“With insect-pollinated flowers, the insects do the job of carrying it to the same species so it’s a lot more efficient,” McCubbin said. “… If you leave that open to wind, then you obviously have to put a heck of a lot of pollen out there for some of it get there to fertilize and make seed.”
This too shall pass. O’Quinn said Spokane residents should expect allergy season to continue through mid-June.
“There are so many different species of grass, and they don’t tend to bloom at the same time, so that extends the season,” O’Quinn said.
Dr. Michael Cruz, co-owner of Spokane Ear, Nose and Throat, said he advises his patients who suffer from seasonal allergies to start medication at Easter and stop at Halloween, adding that the end of the summer people will be hit with ragweed allergies.
Though pollen is a contributor, O’Quinn said it isn’t solely to blame for symptoms.
“The farmers are plowing at this time of year, too, and it releases a lot of dust,” O’Quinn said. “I think at this time of year, people cite allergies as kind of an immediate response when they suffer from itchy, watery eyes, but in many instances that can just be the trifecta of a little bit of pollen and a lot of dust and some of these high winds.”
Every cloud has a silver lining, but in the case of allergies, the phrase can be taken literally: Less pollen is released on rainy days. The weather to look out for is dry weather, when the plants tend to release their pollen, and windy weather, when the pollen is rich in the air.
O’Quinn warns that just because you don’t see the pollen doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
“We don’t see those fine dust particles, but they’re there, trust me,” O’Quinn said. “The fine dust particles in collaboration with the wind and any kind of pollen that’s around … it’s just going to exacerbate the issue.”
O’Quinn said allergy sufferers should do their best to avoid the outdoors on these days, but if they can’t, a bandanna over their nose and mouth can help.
There are a wide variety of options available to treat allergies, Cruz said. Some of his patients take daily antihistamines, like loratadine, while others choose nasal steroid sprays like fluticasone. Saline rinses have also become popular.
“You’re really just decreasing the pollen in your nose or any particulate in the nose that you’re sort of relying on your mucous membrane to clear out anyway,” Cruz said. “That’s been really helpful for a lot of people.”
For more serious cases, the gamut can run from prescription medicine such as Singulair to sinus surgery. Patients can also get tested to determine what their strong allergies are, and then develop a resistance through immunotherapy, though the process takes three to five years.
“You can desensitize the body by getting weekly injections of a very, very small amount of that same protein, so that your body becomes tolerant and doesn’t react the way it did before you started getting the shots,” Cruz said.
There is another method available – putting drops under the tongue – which has been popular in Europe for some time, but Cruz said it isn’t widely covered by insurance.
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