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Environmental Health

No Escape from Seasonal Allergies


Get ready for the yellow snow … the kind that coats your cars, windows and driveways.

By Stephanie Soucheray

After this unseasonably long winter, most of us are itching for spring. But for allergy sufferers, “itching for spring” takes on a whole new meaning when pine pollen, grass and other common allergens start sharing the landscape with their hair-trigger immune systems.

Are you ready for the annual coating of yellow stuff? Photo courtesy Alastair Vance, flickr creative commons

Are you ready for the annual coating of yellow stuff? Photo courtesy Alastair Vance, flickr creative commons

Take for example UNC professor Eric Downing. Every April, he enters a four-week period of misery.

“It kicks in like a demon every year,” said Downing.

Though Downing, a comparative literature scholar, said he suffered from some seasonal allergies growing up in New Jersey, he’s never experienced anything as bad as springtime in North Carolina.

“The only solution would be to leave North Carolina during April,” said Downing, who gets some relief from Zyrtec and other antihistamines. “And that isn’t going to happen.”

But now, new research from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Research Triangle Park has news for people like Downing: Leaving North Carolina may not relieve allergies, and in fact, could just expose you to different allergens with their own brand of misery.

Tip of a tulip stamen with many grains of pollen

Tip of a tulip stamen with many grains of pollen. Image courtesy JJ Harrison, Wikimedia creative commons

“Many studies conducted here in the U.S. have suggested that there are huge regional differences when it comes to allergens, including food allergens, outdoor and indoor allergens,” said Päivi Salo, an epidemiologist at NIEHS. “But our study shows that prevalence among allergy sufferers is the same across the nation. The bottom line is that people are going to be allergic to whatever is in the environment.”

Having allergic reactions, Salo said, is a dynamic process, meaning they change with time, age, hormonal states and environment.

Downing believes he’s allergic to the maple and red oak buds that blossom in North Carolina. According to the new research, if he were living in Arizona, his immune system might trigger a response to dust mites.

“People can grow in or out of allergies,” said Salo. “But once you have experienced allergies, you’re more susceptible to sensitization in different environments.”

Salo’s work is published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. She and her colleagues based their work on blood serum samples collected from 10,000 Americans as part of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey in 2005 and 2006. The serum samples were used to identify indoor, outdoor, pet and food allergies.

While prevalence was the same among adults, children under 5 in the South were more likely to be allergic than their peers elsewhere. Salo said those allergies can be attributed to dust mites and cockroaches. There also seems to be a higher incidence of indoor allergies in the South and outdoor allergies in the West.

Lindsey Brandt moved to North Carolina five years ago from Montana. Like Downing, she remembers mild but insignificant allergies as a kid; but in 2012, her allergies “blew up.”

A scanning electron microscope image of redbud pollen.

A scanning electron microscope image of redbud pollen. Image courtesy Kleopatra, wikimedia creative commons

“They are definitely worse in the spring and summer, but I am also sensitive to fall leaf molds,” she said. “The indoor allergies” – dust mites, molds – “are year-round but are worse when it is hot and humid. In the winter, I can usually stop taking medication.” Brandt said her allergies disappear in Montana.

For Brandt and Downing, allergies significantly impact their quality of life, something Salo notes in her research.

“Several papers have reported that the prevalence of allergies has risen over past decades dramatically,” Salo said. “But why? That’s the billion-dollar question I wish I could answer.”

For now, Downing is trying his best to stay ahead of the inevitable onslaught.

“I’m dreading [April],” he said. “My eyes get crazy, I get terrible headaches, it’s hard to do work, so I’m working hard now.”

Cover photo: Pollen from a variety of common plants: sunflower, morning glory, hollyhock, lily, primrose and castor bean. Image courtesy Dartmouth Electron Microscope Facility, Wikimedia creative commons

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