Pollen is in full bloom, making for a sneezy spring in San Luis Obispo County

Weather conditions create a perfect storm for a big allergy season

jhickey@thetribunenews.comApril 26, 2010 

DAVID MIDDLECAMP — dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com Buy Photo

Above-average rainfall in some parts of San Luis Obispo County has nourished local reservoirs and garden soils, preparing the county for a greater burst of green — and a more severe allergy season — than the three previous years of drought.

More plants will be thriving, and pollen production will expand accordingly, local allergist Dr. Arthur McLean said.

The Central Coast experienced an early winter cold, thorough rains and a delayed spring — just the right conditions to increase blooms and create a “real whopper” of an allergy season, said health consultant and allergenic plant expert Tom Ogren of San Luis Obispo.

As pollen from male plants wafts invisibly toward fertile female blossoms, it will sicken the 10 to 40 percent of the population that has genes for allergic rhinitis, or hay fever. People with allergic rhinitis have immune systems that identify harmless pollens as “foreign invaders.” This causes the body to set off a cascade of defensive responses including itchy eyes, sneezing and inflammation that, in the worst cases, can scar lungs and restrict lung function.

So far this year, McLean has witnessed some peaking symptoms among patients. But intermittent rains have weighed down and washed away pollen to provide some with relief.

However, “when the rainfall stops and it is dry for a week or two, people will really be suffering,” he said.

Natasha Abbey, 25, of Nipomo said she turns into “a mess” two days after it rains, when her allergies trigger asthma, sinus pressure and loss of voice.

In addition to the mold spores, animal dander and pollen that affect some people seasonally, allergic responses can also occur year-round and can be triggered by a variety of irritants including foods, cold weather, toxic chemicals, cigarette smoke and cold viruses.

The tendency toward allergies runs in families, and the affected population can swell to 40 percent between late April and early July, when grass pollen is released locally.

During the spring, the winds carry sea air inland — free of pollen — from the northwest, according to local weather forecaster and Pacific Gas and Electric Co. media spokesman John Lindsey. But about 10 percent of the time, northeasterly winds carry pollen from the Carrizo Plain and pollution from the San Joaquin Valley to the more populated parts of the county.

Ogren said the hills surrounding San Luis Obispo trap pollen to turn the city into a “pollen sink,” especially because most landscaping uses male trees that release pollen instead of female trees, which do not produce pollen but are messier because they produce seeds. Many highly allergenic trees, such as male Chinese pistaches and mulberry trees, line the streets in San Luis Obispo, he said.

The effects of allergies on lifestyle, at worst, can be as damaging as heart disease, McLean said. He recommended allergy sufferers see a doctor when over-the-counter remedies have stopped working.

Or go to the ocean, said Ogren, whose mother, wife and sisters suffer from allergies. Winds off the water shouldn’t contain any pollen.

“For some people, it’s the only way to get any relief,” he said.

If you have allergies

Longtime San Luis Obispo pharmacist Dana Nelson, owner of HealthPlus Pharmacy, recommends that people start taking non-sedating, over-the-counter antihistamines daily during the seasons they normally suffer. To reverse symptoms, take oral diphenhydramine — but it will cause sedation.

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