When we think of seasonal allergies, we think of spring. Newly green grass, trees in spectacular bloom, weeds popping up among the flowers budding in our gardens.
Not anymore. Not in Southern California. Times have changed.
“We used to have more seasons in California,” says Asal Gharib, MD, an assistant professor of immunology at the UCI School of Medicine. “Now, we have an earlier spring, and our weather nearly year round has become more summer-like. That means trees and grasses bloom earlier and produce pollens longer.”
That longer growing season is a big reason those with allergies are sneezing, coughing and suffering from runny noses, ear popping or itchy, red eyes nearly 10 months out of the year in Southern California.
As the weather cools in late fall and early winter, pollen production usually diminishes, bringing some relief to allergy sufferers. Lately, however, brief cooling spells have been followed by heat waves, causing the trees, weeds and grass to bloom — and allergies to flare up all over again.
Causes of allergies
Here in Southern California, the main outdoor allergens are grass pollens. Suburban Orange County’s acres and acres of grass lawns and many golf courses take a toll on allergy sufferers, says Gharib, a UCI Health allergist and immunologist.
Dust mites are the primary cause of indoor allergies, although pets also can trigger allergic reactions in some people.
Dust mites, those pesky spider-like insects that live on mattresses, bedding, upholstery, furniture, carpets and curtains, thrive in warm environments with the higher humidity we’ve been experiencing in recent years.
How to protect yourself from allergens
- Check websites for projected pollen counts. For people sensitive to grass and other pollens, Gharib recommends checking websites that post projected daily pollen counts and staying indoors when the levels are high.
- Shower and wear clean clothes. If you do have to go outside, it’s helpful to shower as soon after coming inside as possible, or at least change clothes to get the pollen off.
- Close the windows, if possible. When inside the house, she suggests closing windows to keep the pollen out — but only if there’s air conditioning to keep cool during frequent heat spells!
- Clean the house and bedsheets. To combat dust mites, Gharib advises weekly house cleaning of surfaces and to wash bedsheets weekly in hot water.
- Minimize pet exposure. People with pet allergies should minimize exposure as much as possible and wash their hands and face after touching animals. Using HEPA air cleaners and bathing pets weekly also can help reduce allergens.
- Consider treatment. Those whose pet allergies are severe should consider seeing an allergist about treatment options, she says.
Even over-the-counter drugs can have side effects
There are plenty of over-the-counter medicines designed to fight seasonal allergy symptoms. Most can help people with intermittent allergies.
The main medication is an intranasal corticosteroid spray, of which there are several over-the-counter brands.
“But sometimes people don’t realize that it needs to be used for two to four weeks to start working,” Gharib says. “Or, they may use it incorrectly: The tip of the nozzle should be placed just inside one nostril, aimed slightly away from the center of the nose before spraying.”
An allergist can advise the best way to use medicines as well as which are most effective for particular conditions.
Gharib says it’s especially wise to consult a physician before taking medications such as Sudafed that contain pseudoephedrine, because it may have side effects, including high blood pressure and heart arrhythmias.
Other over-the-counter allergy products, such as Allegra and Claritin, also may have side effects if used long term. And some may interfere with other medications people are taking.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all treatment,” Gharib says. “It’s wise to let your doctor know what you’re taking and always consult a doctor if you’re taking over-the-counter allergy-relief medicines long term, or if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.”