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Allergy symptoms surge with pollen counts

Published: Thursday, April 12 2012 5:14 p.m. MDT

Dr. Charles Rogers, a board-certified allergist at Allergy Associates of Utah and the Intermountain Medical Center, is photographed on Thursday, April 12, 2012.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Cedar, oak, birch, cottonwood.

They're a big part of the local landscape, but they're also causing Utahns a lot of trouble lately.

"We had a relatively warm winter and what might be perceived as an early or mild spring and this has promoted very high pollen counts," said Dr. Charles Rogers, a board-certified allergist with Allergy Associates of Utah and Intermountain Medical Center. Rogers works out of two offices and definitely keeps busy this time of year.

Pollen counts for a variety of trees are already way above average, "extra high," according to Intermountain Allergy and Asthma, which produces daily measures of what's in the air in the Salt Lake Valley.

"This year is the same or worse than other years," Rogers said. "But it has come on somewhat earlier."

Tree pollens are typically bad from March through June, grass pollens pick up in late April and are prevalent through July, and weed season is worst from July to October. This year, many trees have been pollinating since February.

"These things have a tremendous negative impact on quality of life," said Dr. Craig Moffat, a board-certifed allergist at Alta View Hospital and the Intermountain Sandy Clinic. He said allergies have a tendency to interfere with school, work and daily life, often leading to decreased productivity and absenteeism.

"The best treatment is to change your parents or change your genes," Moffat joked. "But since we can't do that, there's actually really good therapy available."

Allergies, he said, are inherited from a person's parents. If one parent has allergies, children have a 33 percent chance of also having allergies. The percentage increases to 66 percent when both parents suffer from allergies. Moffat's family history (he has one parent with allergies) actually helped him determine his own career path, as he wanted to help others find relief.

Children aren't typically affected by seasonal allergies until age 5, and Moffat said symptoms continue to get worse through a person's 20s and 30s, when they peak and eventually fade away at age 70 or 80.

Both doctors said initial appointments with an allergist or a primary care physician involve recording a patients' history and examining symptoms.

Typical symptoms for seasonal allergies, Moffat said, include red, itchy, watery eyes and runny nose, sneezing and itchiness.

A skin test, where a person is exposed to small amounts of a variety of allergens, would likely follow an initial appointment, to identify the source of a person's suffering.

"Once we've identified what they're allergic to, or it is really grossly apparent on the history, then our first step is always avoidance of the things they're allergic to," Moffat said. "It doesn't cost any money and there are no side effects and it is effective every time. The problem is that many of these things you can't avoid, especially pollens that are outdoors. You can't not do things that are outdoors oriented."

Rogers said that aside from hay fever, which is brought on by increased pollen counts, people can be allergic to mold, dust, animal dander, trees, grass and weeds, among other substances. A variety of medications, both over-the-counter and prescription, can be used to treat symptoms.

"Unfortunately, the best antihistamines tend to be the most sedating," Rogers said, referring to diphenhydramine (Benadryl). He said the effectiveness of the readily available, OTC medication remains unmatched, although a variety of non-drowsy antihistamines are available.

When those don't work, doctors suggest the lengthy process of immunotherapy, or allergy shots.

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