Pollen: What’s seen might be ugly, but unseen causes problems

jholleman@thestate.comMarch 19, 2013 

Pollen from 2012 pooled after a rain.

KKFOSTER@THESTATE.COM — Kim Kim Foster Tobin

The yellow-green pollen dust began settling over the state last week and should peak in the next two weeks.

If you’ve been listening to your highly allergic friends and co-workers, however, they’ve been talking about pollen for months.

That stuff on your car is large-particle pollen, better suited for being seen than for causing respiratory or eye problems. The small-particle pollen that triggers allergies for many people has been out in force since an early January hot spell, according to allergy specialists.

Dr. Lisa Hutto, an allergist with Palmetto Allergy and Asthma, noticed the steady stream of patients with pollen allergies beginning in early January, about four weeks earlier than normal.

That warmth fooled many plants into thinking spring was here, and they released their pollen spores to begin the reproductive cycle. While a colder-than-normal spell in early March slowed South Carolina’s typical late winter pollen explosion, it hardly put a dent in the small-particle pollen in the air.

In fact, the explosion of large pollen particles coincides with another wave of small pollen. Cedar, birch and maple were the predominant pollens in the air Tuesday.

Hutto reports seeing more patients than normal for this time of year with nasal, lung and eye complaints, but she said it’s too early to determine whether this year will be worse than last year. All that seems clear is this season will be longer than most.

Dr. Nicole Psaltis, an ophthalmologist at University Specialty Clinics, has treated an unusually high number of cases of allergic conjunctivitis, or inflammation of the eye. Many of her patients remained on prescription anti-histamines the entire winter, when such problems usually are on the wane. Some patients have had to switch to single-use contact lenses.

For many people, over-the-counter, preservative-free artificial tears applied four times a day will relieve the itching eyes, Psaltis said. Wearing sunglasses also helps protect eyes from allergens blowing in the air.

If over-the-counter anti-histamines or eye drops don’t do the trick after a few days, people have a few choices:

•  Make an appointment with a physician to get more powerful prescription help

•  Install fresh air conditioning filters and stay inside as much as possible

•  Move to, or take an extended vacation in, a low pollen city such as Portland, Ore., or Fargo, N.D.

The pollen count, based on a 0-12 range, on Monday was 9.5 in Columbia, 6.6 in Portland and .3 in Fargo, according to pollen.com.

Of course, every place has its faults. The long-term weather reports list recent earthquake history in Portland and snow depth in Fargo.

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