It’s seriously spring in Northern Virginia, and the bad news is that that’s also pollen season, as the green on the trees is rivaled by the green powder you can see on any car that’s been parked near a tree for more than a day or so.
That’s led to a lot of runny noses and watery eyes in the area, even among people who aren’t allergic to pollen. And if it seems like this is a worse year than usual, two doctors in NoVA say you’re not imagining things.
It’s a “particularly bad, early and long season,” says Dr. Robert Sikora, of the Virginia Center for Allergy and Asthma, which has locations in Woodbridge, Fredericksburg, and Stafford.
It was a warm winter, with no snow and a fair amount of rain, and that “sets us up for a very high pollen season,” Sikora adds.
It started early, too — the pollen started climbing around the end of February, as opposed to the typical late-March or early-April beginning to the season.
Dr. Troy Baker, an allergy-immunology physician at Kaiser Permanente in Woodbridge, says global warming is a culprit: Pollen season lasts about three weeks longer than it did in the 1980s, Baker says.
People are dealing with tree pollen season right now, which runs into June. But depending on what you’re allergic to, things could just be getting started.
“May will be the grass month,” Baker says, and weed pollen starts getting active in late summer.
“People probably feel quite miserable right about now.” It’s certainly been Baker’s experience: “That’s all I see, almost every day.”
Levels can be so high that non-allergic people can simply experience pollen as “a pollution,” Baker says.
Tips to get through pollen season
There are things you can do to make the pollen easier to cope with.
“Most pollen comes out between 4 a.m. and 9 a.m.,” Sikora says, so staying in during the morning can help. And when you come in from outside, rinse yourself off as best you can, and shower if possible.
Baker says you should at least change your clothes when you get in, so you don’t spread pollen onto your furniture. And wipe your pets with a damp towel when they come in from outside, too.
Both doctors say over-the-counter medications such as Zyrtec and Claritin are effective. Sikora points out they used to be prescription-only drugs.
“There’s almost nothing I can prescribe that you can’t get over the counter,” he says.
For your eyes, Baker suggests artificial tears and over-the-counter antihistamine eyedrops, and he suggests keeping the drops in the refrigerator, so they’re cool and soothing. For your nose, Baker calls saline “the unsung hero” of the fight against pollen. Regular saline in an aerosol bottle or squeeze bottle works wonders at cleaning out noses. A neti pot works even better, but Baker cautions that it can be cumbersome to use. And if it seems like too much trouble, don’t bother. In other words, he says, don’t be aspirational here: “Use what you’ll actually use.”
And, as annoying as it is during such nice warm weather, keep your windows closed.
Tips for next year
Both doctors say that starting medication before you realize you need it can help clamp down on symptoms. “It’s always easier to get symptoms under control first, rather than when you’re miserable,” Sikora says.
Shots are a long-term solution to help bolster your defense against pollen as well. Baker says they’re are “kind of like a vaccine” that retrains your body’s response and creates an “antibody army.” It’s not an easy routine — six months of weekly shots, then three to five years of monthly injections — but they work. Most people report feeling roughly 80 percent better, Baker estimates.
That’s all down the road, however. Right now, “It is a miserable season,” Sikora says. “There’s almost no way you’re going to avoid all the symptoms entirely.”
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