College students find Midlands an inhospitable land of sneezing, wheezing in allergy season

jholleman@thestate.comApril 2, 2014 

Spring sprung early this year as tree and flower pollen blankets Columbia.

FILE PHOTOGRAPH — The State Buy Photo

— Mara Reiss finally got her spring allergy problems under control in high school in Nebraska. Then she came to Columbia College, and they cropped up again.

Reiss is like many out-of-state students who discover pollen changes by geography every bit as much as accents and barbecue styles.

Her first year, she especially noticed that the pollen season lasted longer in South Carolina, but she was able to kick an allergy-related sinus infection relatively quickly.

“Last year, I was on medication most of the spring time trying to kick another sinus infection that also began with allergic responses,” Reiss said. “It took a very long time to get rid of, much longer than my first year here.”

Thus far this spring, her body hasn’t reacted much to the pollen. But it’s likely coming. The weather.com forecast says pollen levels were moderate Wednesday, heading to high on Thursday and very high on Friday.

Local residents have begun to notice the annual pine pollen explosion on their cars this week. College freshmen from outside the Southeast often spend their first spring in Columbia grossed out by the pine pollen that covers every surface for several weeks.

Then their second year, some end up in an allergist’s office. Often, it takes a year for their bodies immune systems to react to spring pollens new to their experience, said Dr. Greg Black, an allergist with Carolina Allergy and Asthma Consultants.

“In Maryland or Connecticut or New Jersey, they’re not exposed to the allergic milieu they’re now living in,” Black said. “They must live in it awhile. It takes time to make allergic antibodies.”

By their sophomore year, their bodies are programmed to release antibodies to fight the local pollen-related allergens. Most join in the minor aggravation felt by many locals. Or if they really suffer, they can visit an allergist for help.

Students from the Northeast and Midwest discover that although Columbia doesn’t get much snow, it gets plenty of pollen.

“All around the Southeast, it’s pretty comparable,” said Dr. David Amrol, director of the Division of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology and associate professor of clinical internal medicine at the USC School of Medicine. “Every big city claims to be the allergy capital of the world. We say that, Atlanta says that, Nashville says that.”

One thing South Carolina, and Columbia especially, has over those other parts of the Southeast is the volume of pine trees.

The large pine pollen particles that coat cars are a red herring. The lighter pollens from other plants and trees remain suspended in the air longer and cause the real allergy problems. Of course, the pine pollen come about the same time as the others, so people begin to notice respiratory problems about the same time their cars need washing.

And that’s when visits to allergists really pick up. “It’s psychological when people start seeing the pollen,” Amrol said.

The key to treatment, according to Black, is determining what form of medication works best for each individual, then sticking to it – not just that spring but each successive spring. Studies have shown that beginning treatment before the pollens begin to fill the air is much more effective than waiting for the first signs of running nose or watery eyes.

Black did some of his training in New Orleans, where allergists tell patients to begin their medications at the end of Mardi Gras and take them through June.

The reaction for an allergy sufferer in Columbia isn’t going to change spring to spring unless every tree is cut down between Charlotte and Orangeburg, Black said. Also, the severe winter weather this year will have little impact other than when the season begins.

“Oak pollen comes out for 90 days,” Black said. “And it’s going to be bad no matter how much. ... It might start later, but those trees are going to pollinate.”

All it takes is a few warm days in March to start the most common tree pollens. Once even a little of the pollen you’re allergic to gets in the air, “your immune system is turning on the bomb factory” to fight off the allergies, Black said.

People with minor allergy problems can treat the symptoms with over-the-counter antihistamines. This year, they have an additional alternative with the nasal steroid spray Nasacort, which became available without a prescription in February.

If you go through antihistamines and Nasacort without getting any relief, it’s time to head to an allergist to get an expert to help you find the right solution for you. This year, allergists have a new option to shots for grass allergies. The Food and Drug Administration this week approved prescription grass allergy tablets that are placed under the tongue once a day.

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