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How to Prevent Allergies

An allergist and immunologist offers her advice on making it through the allergy season in D.C.

Although spring is a respite after shivering through a cold winter, blooming buds and pollinating trees can trigger some unbearable allergies for many.

George Washington Today talked with Dipa Sheth, M.D. '06, an allergist and immunologist at GW's Medical Faculty Associates and assistant professor of medicine at the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, to learn how this allergy season is shaping up and what people can do to mitigate its effects.

Q: How does the allergy forecast look for this season?

A: We’ve seen an increase in the duration of the allergy season over the last several years. With warmer temperatures, trees start to pollinate as early as February, extending the spring allergy season by a month. Early spring temperatures mean allergy symptoms will be intense and last longer than average. Many people have been suffering from spring allergies for the last several weeks already.

Q: How long does spring allergy season usually last in the D.C. area?

A:  The first pollen usually starts in February and can last through May. The most prominent pollen in the spring is tree pollen. Grass pollen starts to appear in late spring, usually in May, and runs through the early summer. However, seasons can be variable due to variations in climate. For example, tree pollen may continue into early June some years.

Q: What are the causes of springtime allergies?

A: Tree pollen. Most trees release their pollen in the late winter and early spring. The trees most likely to cause allergy symptomsinclude elm, maple, cedar, birch and beech.  Grass pollens cause late spring symptoms as well.

Q: Are allergies worse in D.C. than other areas of the country?

A: It can seem worse because we have a high tree pollen count.

Q: What do you think is the most effective allergy medicine?

A: Each person responds to medications differently. In general, prescription nasal steroids work very well for nasal allergy symptoms as well as eye allergies. Some people benefit from eye drops as well as oral antihistamines and antihistamine sprays in addition to their nasal steroids. Nasal saline rinses are very effective as well.

Q: When is the best time to start taking allergy medicine?

A: We recommend that you begin taking your medicines two weeks before your symptoms surface. Therefore, it is useful to know what you are allergic to by doing skin testing so your allergist can recommend when you should start taking your medications.

Q: Other than medication, what can people do to prevent their allergies in check?

A: Try to stay indoors as much as possible when pollen and mold counts are high.  Keep windows closed and use the air conditioner so pollen does not enter your home or car. Change your clothes and wash your hair if you have been outdoors. Do not dry your clothes outdoors where they can collect pollen. Limit outdoor activities in the early morning, as pollen counts are highest at that time. Avoid outdoor chores such as yard work or mowing grass, but if you must be outdoors, wear a facemask that filters pollen out. Track pollen counts by checking local newspapers or websites such as the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

Q: Do you recommend getting an allergy test?

A: Most definitely. Finding out exactly what you are allergic to is an important step in treating allergies effectively. Allergy tests are convenient and accurate. Each allergen is pricked on the surface of the skin, and in 15 minutes, you have the results.

Q: Is it more common to have allergies in the spring versus in the fall?

A: It depends on people’s individual allergies. Washington, D.C., typically has a high tree pollen count. Tree pollen is the most dominant pollen in the springtime, and weeds and mold spores are the dominant pollen in the fall. Many people will have trouble during both seasons if they are allergic to trees and weeds.

Q: How does the weather—rain, cold snaps, etc.—affect allergies?

A: As the temperature rises, pollen counts typically increase. As the weather changes, mold counts change. Mold is a fungus that makes spores, and when people who have a mold allergy breathe in the spores, they experience allergic symptoms. Some kinds of mold spores increase with dry, breezy weather, and other types of mold spores increase when there is high humidity. On windy days, more pollen and mold can circulate in the air.